A decision taken a decade ago today cost Mikko Hirvonen a World Rally Championship – and the potential to break Sébastien Loeb’s astonishing run of nine titles.
On Sunday 24 May in 2009, the sixth round of the WRC, Rally d’Italia Sardegna, came to its conclusion. Arriving on the Italian island, the talk was about continued Citroën domination.
The French manufacturer had won the previous six rounds, with Loeb at the top of the table on a perfect 50 points from the year’s first five rallies.
Ford hadn’t won in six months. What’s more, Jari-Matti Latvala was building his confidence after a terrifying roll down a Portuguese mountainside two rallies earlier. Latvala’s team-mate, Hirvonen, was 19 points down on Loeb at the start outside Olbia’s City Hall. M-Sport’s Finns in Fords needed a result.
The first half was dominated by tactics as Citroën tried to ease Loeb’s pain running first on the road in hot, dry conditions. Ford responded, but in the heat of the battle Hirvonen couldn’t believe how much time the team was asking him to drop and the Blue Oval failed to take full advantage.
Loeb did end up running behind Hirvonen, but paid the price for his tactical approach when he clobbered a rock pulled out by the Focus RS and punctured.
In what remains one of the fastest ever wheel changes, Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena were back in the car and on their way after just 1m10s. But stewards noticed Elena hadn’t buckled up his belts in time and a two-minute penalty was handed out.
Going into the final day, Latvala was 9.9sec ahead of Hirvonen with Petter Solberg more than a minute behind in his private Citroën Xsara. Team principal Malcolm Wilson was caught between a rock and a hard place. What should he do?
The decision was to leave the cars in position. Ultimately, fog and hanging dust handed first on the road Latvala a significant advantage, but still the world waited for J-ML to pull over or make one final tactical check in to a control. It never came. And a delighted Latvala celebrated his second WRC win.
Hirvonen registered eight points instead of 10. Six rounds and five months later, when the final reckoning was done, he was one point behind Loeb.
Switching the Fords around 10 years ago today would have given Mikko the two points he needed to be world champion.
Talking to Wilson about it a decade on, he remembers a difficult decision that morning.
“We were completely torn,” he said. “Obviously Mikko was the number one driver and we wanted to support him, but at the same time Jari-Matti had such a difficult start to the year and I really wanted to boost him up.
“Don’t forget, he’d just had that huge accident in Portugal and I really felt a win would help get his confidence back. At the time we could have had no idea the way the rest of the season would play out,” he said.