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Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen will arrive for Repco Rally Australia in less than five weeks’ time as favourite for the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship after winning his home round in Finland yesterday.

The 29-year-old star of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team led the three-day Neste Oil Rally Finland from the second of 23 special stages, finishing 25.1 seconds and three championship points clear of defending champion Sebastien Loeb, who was second.

Repco Rally Australia, round 10 of 12 in the WRC, will be staged in the New South Wales Northern Rivers on 3-6 September.

It now is guaranteed to be an enthralling battle as Hirvonen reaches out for his maiden driver’s championship and Loeb strives to stay in contention for a record sixth straight title.

Hirvonen will return as the defending Rally Australia winner from the last round in 2006, but acknowledged at a post-event media conference that all bets would be off for the new east-coast event.

“Like you said, it will be a new rally for everybody and I don’t know what the surface will be like. But we will see. It is now three to go and we are leading by three points. If all goes well in Australia we can take the battle right to the end,” he said.

Victory on Rally Finland, the fastest round of the WRC, is seen by most drivers as the ultimate prize, but it was especially sweet for Hirvonen, who lives in host city Jyvaskyla and was tackling the event for the eighth time.

Hirvonen climbed on to the roof of his Ford Focus RS at the finish control and punched the air to celebrate his third straight win of the season.

“I’ve been watching this rally since I was a kid and now I’ve won it myself it’s an absolutely fantastic feeling,” he said.

“The rally went exactly like we planned. I always knew it would be close with Sebastien. I’ve enjoyed myself all weekend. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Loeb was Hirvonen’s biggest threat throughout the rally but said his challenge effectively ended after he dropped a wheel of his Citroen C4 into a pothole on special stage 15, pushing a tyre off its rim and losing 13 sec.

“It was a good battle with Mikko, but he was really fast here,” Loeb said. “It was looking good for Mikko to begin with but after my puncture, it was over.

“I lost too much time and it was not possible to come back - the gap was too much.

“But okay, we are here. We lost two points in the championship but it‘s better than losing 10 like we did on the last couple of events. It will be an interesting end to the championship, I think.”

After moving ahead of Citroen’s Dano Sordo on Saturday, Hirvonen’s teammate Jari-Matti Latvala took a well-deserved third place, 24.8 sec. behind Loeb, and was relieved to make the podium after the disaster of his last-stage crash on the previous round in Poland.

“I’ve never had to fight so hard for third place,” Latvala said. “I had extremely big pressure on Friday because of what happened in Poland, then I was really, really sick on Saturday and had to fight Dani, who was driving his best-ever Rally Finland, then finally I had to keep the position to the end.”

Sordo finished fourth, 16.2 sec. behind Latvala, after one of the best drives of his career. Once known more for his ability on sealed surfaces than gravel, Sordo marked himself as a true all-round after an amazing performance on all three days.

He did not put a wheel wrong and played the perfect team role on the final day when he was asked to safeguard Citroen’s manufacturers’ series points rather than go after Latvala. BP Ford has closed the gap, but Citroen still leads the Manufacturers’ Championship by 14 points.

Finland’s Matti Rantanen proved one of the sensations of the event, finishing fifth for Munchi’s Ford on only his second outing in a WRC car.

Gerard Quinn, Ford of Europe’s senior manager for motorsport, said Hirvonen’s victory in the country regarded as the traditional home of rallying was a tremendous achievement.

“Four consecutive wins in conditions ranging from blisteringly fast roads in Finland to the rock-strewn tracks and searing heat in Greece demand a blend of strength, speed and reliability from both man and machine and I look forward to us challenging in Australia next month,” he said.

BP Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said he also was looking forward to Rally Australia.

“It’s a completely new event and Mikko has a great track record on new rallies, so all we have to stop is the ‘Sebastien Loeb Factor’ in Spain and I think we are well on our way to the championship,” Wilson said.

Rally Australia returns to the WRC after 19 years in Western Australia.

Results (day three):
Sebastien LOEB +25.1 sec. behind leader
Jari-Matti LATVALA +49.9
Dani SORDO +1:06.1
Matti RANTANEN +4:18.2

Drivers championship:
Sebastien LOEB 65
Dani SORDO 44
Jari-Matti LATVALA 31
Henning SOLBERG 27

Manufacturers’ championship:
Citroen Total 119
BP Ford 105
Stobart Ford 64
Citroen Junior 33
Munchi’s Ford 20
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