Hirvonen wins in Japan

 

Motor sport:Finn Mikko Hirvonen comfortably won the crash-strewn Japan Rally on Sunday as the race for the world title remained in limbo.

Championship leader Marcus Gronholm rammed his Ford into a tree stump in Friday's first leg before his nearest rival, triple world champion Sebastien Loeb, skidded off on Saturday.

Loeb had reduced the gap in the title race to four points with back-to-back wins in Catalunya and Corsica but he blew his chance to catch Gronholm after the Finn's quick demise.

Citroen mechanics were able to repair Loeb's car before Sunday's final leg but despite winning four stages, the Frenchman retired with oil pressure problems in the penultimate stage.

Hirvonen kept his nerve, meanwhile, and steered his Ford cautiously through the final stage to claim his third career win by 37.4 seconds.

Spaniard Daniel Sordo finished second for Citroen with Norway's Henning Solberg a distant third, giving the Ford driver his second podium finish of the year.

Japan's northern island of Hokkaido escaped the typhoon battering much of the rest of the country but it was still wet enough to make the going treacherous.

Fourth place or better in Japan would have lifted Loeb above Gronholm heading into the penultimate round in Ireland.

But Loeb's hopes of catching race leader Hirvonen, and boosting his hopes of winning a fourth successive world title, also ended prematurely early in Saturday's second leg when he skidded down a ditch in slippery conditions.

He was followed off by Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland, who crashed his Ford as drivers fought desperately to keep their cars on the narrow roads.

Latvala, who had led the rally early in the first leg, took little comfort from eventually finishing 26th.

"I felt like a rally driver on Friday," he shrugged. "Today I feel like a taxi driver."