It should really have been Mikko’s second win of the year, and no doubt post-event scrutineering in Sardinia was a nerve-wracking time for him, after he had his last victory in Portugal taken away.
But Mikko is strong in the head: a couple of challenging years at Subaru in 2004 and as a privateer in 2005 toughened him up (although he’s still not lost his youthful looks). As a result of which, he’s not scared of anything much these days. Even a nine-time world champion, or the sternest technical scrutineers.
Mind management is one of Mikko’s strongest points, and something that he has very much in common with Loeb. Both know exactly the right pace at which they can run without taking risks, although that threshold for Loeb is slightly higher.
But he still misjudged it this time. Or did he? There’s an explanation for the seemingly random error that put Loeb off the road on the first stage of Friday morning.
“That impact occurred because we actually had a puncture there during the recce,” he explained later. “I wasn’t really concentrating on making the right pace note at the time because I was looking for a place to stop and change the wheel. And that’s undoubtedly why I underestimated the corner.”
There were no such problems for Hirvonen, who cruised serenely to the finish. But rarely was he the fastest: he won four out of the 16 stages, while Loeb only won the opening stage. The rest were claimed by Ford drivers (Fiestas were at least first and second on every stage during Saturday and Sunday) with the majority of stages won by the up-and-coming young privateers: Evgeny Novikov, Mads Ostberg and Ott Tanak.
That tells us two things: firstly that the future of the sport is in safe hands, and secondly that the Fiesta will still be a force to be reckoned with next year, despite Ford announcing that it is going to be pulling out of the championship as a manufacturer in 2013, following a 16-year association with partner team M-Sport.
That’s not entirely true as Ford will still supply technical support, and there will probably still be Ford branding on the cars. So largely business as usual in other words. But what M-Sport does need, following the news that Jari-Matti Latvala is off to Volkswagen, is drivers.
Based on the performance of their youngsters in Sardinia, boss Malcolm Wilson shouldn’t have too much to worry about on that front. Novikov and Tanak - two drivers who have certainly had their moments in the past - were told in no uncertain terms to keep it on the road and finish in Sardinia. As a result, they each delivered or equalled the best result of their respective careers, making the superstars in the factory team look somewhat impetuous in the process. Ostberg too would have been in the fight for a podium had it not been for a differential problem and a puncture.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh on the big names that crashed out in Sardinia: it’s deceptively the trickiest gravel event of the year. Some stages are insanely narrow - as Chris Atkinson’s co-driver Stephane Prevot pointed out “you wish you had a Fiat 500 instead of a World Rally Car” - and there are rocks absolutely everywhere, many of them sharp enough to make punctures a constant risk.
The problem is the nature of the surface: rather than classic gravel, the stages are loose and sandy, meaning that the top layer is easily moved to uncover a hard or abrasive base underneath. This explains as well why tyre wear was such an issue over the weekend, with the soft compound option being chewed up by the aggressive surface and high temperatures.
All this was good news for Sebastien Ogier: one of the real heroes of Rally Italia Sardegna. He set the first-ever fastest stage time for a Super 2000 car, helped by the fact that it is much less demanding on its tyres, and he also secured the highest-ever overall placing for an S2000 with fifth overall. For most of the event, the Frenchman was fighting with the MINI John Cooper Works WRC of Chris Atkinson, who struggled from start to finish to find a good balance with the car. If that’s what Ogier can do in a lower category car minus a turbo, just think how quick he will be when the Polo R WRC comes out next year.
Andreas Mikkelsen, who is set to drive a third Polo from Portugal next year, did another flawless job in the second Volkswagen-entered Skoda to show similar pace to his team-mate, underlining once more how Sardinia really put the accent on youth despite the difficulty of the terrain. It’s maybe not a coincidence: when the route is so obviously daunting, it encourages inexperienced drivers to take a long-term view rather than risking everything on just one stage. Ironically, Rally Italia Sardegna is probably the closest that the current calendar comes to the legendary Safari in Africa.
While there has not yet been an official announcement about the future of the Italian round it looks increasingly likely to stay in Sardinia next year, when it will run earlier in the year. So the experience gained last weekend will be really useful practice, and those who crashed out early will be regretting their errors of judgement.
That brings us neatly back to Hirvonen’s biggest strength as a driver, which is that he doesn’t make mistakes. From start to finish it was a masterclass of control, and from what we could see on Thursday, Mikko stood every chance of beating Loeb on pace even if the Frenchman had continued.
One of the first people to congratulate Hirvonen at the finish was his former boss Wilson. “I’m so happy for you,” said the Ford team principal, embracing the Finn at the final control in Olbia, in a touching display of sportsmanship. “But it never took you this long to win in a Ford!”