It is now a two-horse race on Rally Portugal this weekend following the completion of the penultimate day, and both of those horses are from the same stable, after a second misfortune struck Ford – and this time on the car of Jari-Matti Latvala.
From a seven-second advantage at the midway point on Saturday, Sébastien Ogier currently holds a margin of nigh-on 40 seconds heading into the final day – only now he is being pursued, as in Mexico three weeks ago, by his own Citroën Total World Rally Team team-mate and compatriot Sébastien Loeb.
“For the moment it's perfect, but there are still 100 kilometres to go and we saw a lot of problems for a lot of drivers,” mused the leader, expressing caution on what is turning out to be a real rally of attrition. “We plan to be easy with the car and the tyres, but it's not easy. Without any problems it should be okay, but it's not finished.”
“I think he will keep the lead he has,” added Loeb. “For sure it will be very difficult to catch him, because there's not so much cleaning happening and he is far in front so there is nothing to do. I thought it was easy to get a puncture on the final stage today, so I slowed down a bit on the stage.”
Latvala's hopes were dashed by a costly driveshaft failure on SS12. The Crash.net
columnist subsequently had to stop to change a puncture, leaving him more than four minutes adrift of Ogier and ostensibly with his victory hopes in tatters – a double blow for the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, with a puncture followed by a broken rear suspension on SS13 similarly knocking team-mate Mikko Hirvonen out of the hunt. The world championship leader will begin from fifth on Sunday, and conceded that 'we could have been in the fight but now it's just very disappointing'.
Still, at least Hirvonen was able to bury the hatchet with Loeb following the pair's earlier ill-tempered spat. The WRC's 'recordman' had accused his title rival of deliberately trying to sabotage his charge in order to protect Latvala's then lead, by stunting his progress in clouds of dust [see separate story – click here
]. Like the dust, though, the dispute has now blown over.
“I was angry with Mikko, but it's not his fault,” Loeb told the official championship website of the 30-second time loss that he had blamed for 'destroying' his bid for glory. “He could imagine I was there, but he could not know for sure. He cannot stop for nothing. It was the choice of Ford not to let me go, because I said to my team on the radio that we were in the dust and we couldn't see anything. They called Ford, but they said I had to stay behind.”
“I would be unhappy in that situation as well,” concurred Hirvonen. “The next stage he came and apologised to me about the whole thing, and I said I was sorry but there was nothing I could do about it. For sure, for everybody it looks like we protected Jari-Matti, but I just wanted to get back in the car and then carry on flat-out, which was the right thing to do. I didn't know how long my tyre change took, but I didn't see any dust or anything coming so I thought it was a fairly good change. Then we got back in the car and went flat-out.”
Whilst Citroën Sport director Olivier Quesnel confessed to being 'really frustrated' with the situation, his Ford counterpart Malcolm Wilson was shouldering none of the responsibility.