Five drivers will enter the final day of the 2011 edition of Rally Sweden this weekend blanketed by barely 15 seconds following a thrillingly topsy-turvy conclusion to the action today (Saturday).
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team star Mikko Hirvonen remains in control of proceedings, having extended his margin over unfancied M-Sport Stobart adversary Mads Østberg to a fraction over seven seconds, despite suffering a spin on SS12 just after the midway rest. However, just as the Norwegian lost time as the effective snow plough for his fellow competitors on day two, so the defending rally-winner fears he may be punished by having to clear a path for his rivals on Sunday morning.
“Maybe I don't have a chance, but you never know,” mused a phlegmatic Hirvonen. “All I can do is go flat-out. It's been so difficult today, because all those drivers running after us on the national rally are making the line in completely the wrong place, but they won't be there tomorrow so maybe we can do it. I will just push as hard as I can.”
“It's been absolutely very difficult today,” agreed Østberg, who at one point had a lead of almost 15 seconds over his fellow Fiesta driver. “I expected it to be a lot better on the second pass of the stages, but it was a lot worse with all the ruts that had formed. That made it so frustrating, but that's how it is. I just have to stay calm and not do anything stupid, drive and push again.”
The intrigue increases when it is considered that former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, Hirvonen's factory Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and Citroën Total World Rally Team ace Sébastien Ogier – impressively, on only his second appearance in Sweden – are all similarly within 15.8 seconds of the leader, with the latter pair having made particular inroads.
“It was the plan to be third,” revealed Solberg, fastest on two forest stages on day two. “I was not so happy with the handling at one point today, but in the end it got better when we made some changes and now I am happy.”
Latvala's only concern was a high-speed spin two kilometres from the end of SS12, as he has inexorably whittled down his team-mate's advantage, whilst on an afternoon that completely reversed Ford's earlier dominance of the event, Citroën claimed all five stage wins – one for Solberg, one for Ogier and three for the WRC's 'record man' Sébastien Loeb, who nonetheless remains some way adrift of the victory-chasing quintet following his delays on Friday. Along the way on day two, the Frenchman had to overcome a puncture and a brush with a snow bank that filled his DS3's air filter with snow and resulted in a loss of engine power.
Former F1 World Rally Champion Kimi Raikkonen has fought his way grittily up to seventh in his Ice 1 Racing-run DS3, with the plucky Per-Gunnar Andersson slipping back to eighth after spending most of the afternoon without power steering in his Fiesta RS WRC.
Patrik Sandell remains ninth and the clear Production World Rally Championship (PWRC) pace-setter, although the home hero lost time with a disagreement with a snow bank on SS13, requiring co-driver Staffan Parmander to manually clear the radiator on the pair's Skoda Fabia – and a subsequent near-miss with the oncoming Loeb provided another scare. Matthew Wilson has risen to tenth following power steering woes the previous day.
Sunday's opening stage, Torntorp, will begin just before 8am local time, with the event set to conclude with the Power Stage, which will be broadcast live around the world on television and will award bonus points to the three quickest drivers.
Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 16 (Top 10):
1. Mikko Hirvonen
Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC 2hours 34mins 56.1secs
2. Mads Ostberg
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 07.4secs
3. Petter Solberg
PSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC +00mins 08.9secs
4. Jari-Matti Latvala
Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 10.9secs
5. Sebastien Ogier
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 15.8secs
6. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +01mins 42.1secs
7. Kimi Raikkonen
ICE 1 Racing Citroen DS3 WRC +05mins 05.5secs
8. PG Andersson
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05mins 30.7secs
9. Patrik Sandell
Skoda Fabia S2000 +07mins 44.8secs
10. Matt Wilson
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +07mins 46.2secs
11. Khalid Al-Qassimi
Team Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC +07mins 49.6secs
12. Martin Prokop
Ford Fiesta S2000 +09mins 15.5secs
13. Denis Kuipers
FERM Powertools Ford Fiesta RS WRC +09mins 52.4secs
14. Ken Block
Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +13mins 21.3secs
PWRC standings after Stage 16 (Top 3):
1. Martin Semerad
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 2 hours 51mins 16.0secs
2. Yuriy Protasov
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +04mins 32.7secs
3. Valeriy Gorban
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +06mins 08.7secs
Subaru Impreza STi
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC
Skoda Fabia S2000
EXC. Patrik Flodin
Subaru Impreza STi P
all times unofficial