Defending winner Mikko Hirvonen has snatched the lead of the 2011 Rally Sweden from surprise package Mads Østberg as the event reaches its midway point and is fast developing into a four-way thriller – but the man really on the move is former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, who has slashed the deficit to the leading duo to barely half a minute.
Although Østberg led overnight, it is Hirvonen who has hit the front following Saturday morning's four-stage loop, as the Finn overturned his M-Sport Stobart rival's 14.8-second advantage to move ahead by a scant three tenths of a second in his new Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team Fiesta WRC. Hirvonen gained the most time on Østberg on SS8, the day's opening run through Lesjöfors.
“I didn't know how much loose snow there would be on the road,” explained the 2008 and 2009 World Rally Championship runner-up, speaking from the midday service halt at Hagfors. “There was some and I lost a little time by ploughing it, but there was nothing like as much as yesterday. The sun was still low on the second stage, and it wasn't easy driving into sixth-gear corners when I couldn't see where the road went.
“I've really tried to push hard, and some places are cleaning more than others. There is still a long way to go, but the car feels fantastic so there is no need to change anything and it's great fun being involved in such a big fight for the lead!”
Østberg revealed that he had been hampered by running first-on-the-road and as the effective snow plough through the icy, snowbound forests of central Sweden in temperatures of as low as -17ºC, as the Norwegian confessed that 'it's been really tricky at times' – before adding that he had actually 'expected to lose more time'.
Solberg remains third, although from being 57 seconds behind the leader in his privately-run Citroën DS3 WRC overnight, 'Hollywood' is now only 31 seconds adrift and fast homing in. The 36-year-old set the pace on two of Saturday morning's stages, and would have been even closer to Hirvonen and Østberg had it not been for a ten-second penalty for late arrival at the start of SS10. Palpably enjoying himself, the 13-time rally-winner insists that 'everything is possible' and 'we will keep pushing'.
Jari-Matti Latvala is fourth in the second works Ford entry, as the final competitor in a leading quartet covered by less than three-quarters-of-a-minute. Despite proving to be the very model of consistency with the third-quickest time on all four stages, still the 25-year-old admitted he was not wholly satisfied with his performance.
“I had a great feeling with the car and I enjoyed myself,” he remarked, “but when I saw drivers going faster than me, I pushed hard and became too aggressive. I found it difficult to calm down and settle into a good rhythm. During my test before the rally I had a smooth rhythm, and I need to find that again. It's not the car that's the problem – it's the driver! I should be fighting with Petter – so I need to improve.”
After fifth-placed Henning Solberg suffered a power-steering problem leaving service and subsequently rolled on Saturday's opening stage, Sébastien Ogier inherited the position, with the Frenchman now more than a minute-and-a-half ahead of Citroën Total World Rally Team team-mate, countryman and namesake Sébastien Loeb, who lost time when he hit a snow bank and picked up a puncture, though the WRC's 'record man' could at least take heart from setting the fastest time on SS8.