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GP Week : Issue 93
After teamate Mikko Hirvonen crashed, Ford's 25 year-old number two driver Jari-Matti Latvala singlehandedly withstood the might of the Citroen teams to win his home event, the 60th anniversary Neste Oil Rally Finland. World championship leader Sebastien Loeb cruised home to third place, handicapped by running first car on the road for half the event, more determined to increase his championship points tally than his number of outright victories. For four stages, privateer Citroen driver Petter Solberg held the lead but gradually fell back to fourth. Second place, and pushing Latvala hard until the finish was Sebastien Ogier, on his first outing with the official Citroen Total team, and on only his second attempt at this hightly-specialist event in a World Rally Car. The first WRC event over only two instead of three days for 23 years began in blazing heat on the hottest day ever recorded in the country and was won at the event's highest ever average speed. Ford was struggling. Last year's winner Hirvonen started the event on a mission, winning the two opening orthodox stages, but then crashed on the third. It was a big one, the car suddenly changing direction when it landed after a jump. From mid-afternoon on Day 1 onwards, Latvala was the only non-Citroen driver in the top five, with 23 year-old Stobart driver Matthew Wilson holding sixth place. Hirvonen's was not the only Focus wrecked, Khalid Al Qassimi and Henning Solberg both crashed heavily as well. 22 year-old Norwegian Mads Osterg, pulled up to seventh place after suffering a puncture early in the event, and he dashed the hopes of Juha Kankkunen. As has become traditional, Finnish drivers who have been World Champions return to the sport and enter this event when they are 51 years old. Kankkunen's aim was clear -- to finish the highest-placed 51 year-old ex- world champion! The record had been set in 1993 by Hannu Mikkola who was seventh and, until five stages from the end, Juha had been holding seventh place himself! The weather was strange. Apart from the heat in the run up to the event it had been very dry, compounding the road-cleaning challenges for the top runners. It had only rained once in the previous six weeks, but with the luck of a champion, it rained during the night before Day 1 -- just what Sebastien Loeb could have been praying for. It didn't help much as the rising temperatures quickly dried up the tracks, but just as Latvala was to run first car on the road for Day 2, it rained again. This certainly helped Latvala, as did the organisers decision to run the final two stages (for television coverage) in reverse order for the top five crews. This was a perfect chance for Latvala to know the split times of his rival Ogier, now running one car in front of him. Latvala's win was measured: "This is an event where you must take risks but you must not take risks all the time." It was not only his fourth world rally victory, his first on home ground in a country where rally driving egos are high, but also his points tally now puts him higher than Hirvonen in the WRC charts. And on a personal level, his fourth win also puts him higher in the WRC records than the young driver who had always been his hero, the late Henri Toivonen. Ogier -- brilliant drive to second ... 42