It is the same four leaders as at the midway stage at the end of the first full day of the 2011 edition of Rally Portugal – only in precisely the opposite order, as Jari-Matti Latvala stormed to the head of the timing screens for the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, and erstwhile pace-setter Sébastien Ogier played the long game by deliberately slipping back to fourth place.
The key to Latvala's vault up the leaderboard from fourth to first was a magnificent run through the final test of the day, SS7 – his third fastest run of the event thus far, and happily banishing the memories of his terrifying crash on the very same 21.31-kilometre Felizes stage two years ago – and the Finn will enter the second day of the rally holding an 11.5-second advantage over team-mate and compatriot Mikko Hirvonen.
Although the Crash.net
columnist will now be tasked with having to run first-on-the-road and thereby clear the Algarve tracks of their loose gravel surface on Saturday, he is unduly concerned.
“Of course there was a possibility to slow down and maybe that would have been the best thing,” he reflected. “Okay, it's not maybe the ideal position but it is what it is, and I'm not afraid of the conditions and what will be happening tomorrow.”
“I am really happy with how the day went,” added Hirvonen, the 'road sweeper' throughout Friday. “The car is working really well and is proof that we did a good test. Tomorrow will be absolutely flat-out and we will attack from the start. I'm feeling good – everything is fine.”
In contrast to the Ford duo's charge, Citroën Total World Rally Team pairing Ogier and namesake Sébastien Loeb both elected to surrender their positions at the top of the timesheets in slowing through SS7 to deliberately ensure themselves of better starting positions on day two. Loeb now sits third, 13.7 seconds off the lead, with Ogier precisely three seconds further back in fourth.
“I slowed to make sure I wasn't at the front,” confirmed the WRC's 'recordman'. “Mikko was very fast today – first-on-the-road and I couldn't get a gap to him. I think Ford is very dangerous here – they are going very fast. This afternoon, they were quicker than us. We have to find a solution.”
“Nobody knows exactly what will happen tomorrow so we will see,” mused Ogier. “You need to have a big gap to stay in the lead, but it was not possible to take that today because conditions were similar for everybody.”
The fifth competitor who had just about been hanging on in contention for glory is now sadly out of the hunt altogether. Having suffered no fewer than four punctures in his privately-run Citroën DS3 WRC – the last of which on the final stage – luckless former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg found himself with no more spare tyres and with no option other than to retire from the day, reasoning that he would have lost more time in limping through the remainder of the stage than he will with the ten-minute SupeRally time penalty he will carry on Saturday.