Ford World Rally Team's Jari-Matti Latvala has further extended his lead on Rally Sweden this afternoon.

Latvala began the second day by edging ahead slightly on the opening loop, increasing his cushion over his former team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen from 16.8 seconds last night to 18.6 seconds going into the mid-day halt. Jari-Matti then pushed on this afternoon, taking two more stage wins in his Fiesta RS WRC car and eventually ending the leg with the gap up to 23 seconds.

"It's a good lead now, but I have to keep this position to the end of the rally," Latvala said. "That's what matters. I needed to play my cards right today. Knowing when to attack, when to look after the tyres and when to change them was what it was all about.

"I know Mikko will attack in the morning so I can't think about easing off. I have a bigger lead than I did this morning which gives me confidence, but I need to be wide awake from the very first kilometre."

Hirvonen meanwhile hasn't given up and while he has seen his fellow countryman edge ahead, the Citroen newbie has promised to keep pushing on Sunday and try to repeat the form that saw him top the times on both runs through Fredriksberg (as SS13 and SS17).

"Obviously, I'm a bit disappointed that I haven't managed to reduce the gap, because I would really like to win this rally for the third time running," Hirvonen said. "However, I am particularly pleased with the feeling I am getting in the car, and that's very encouraging for the next few rallies. Under normal racing conditions, for sure, I won't be able to win the rally. But you never know, something unexpected might happen. I'll keep putting Jari-Matti under pressure tomorrow."

Petter Solberg is currently on course for the final place on the rostrum. However while he had been right up with Hirvonen last night, he is now almost 30 seconds adrift. Furthermore with Mads Ostberg only 11.1 seconds back in fourth, he knows P3 is far from assured.

"It's the first time I've driven competitively in the loose in this car and it's tough to jump straight into a new car and find the right pace immediately," Solberg said. "Tomorrow will be hard because Mads is close behind me. I have to be careful and not go crazy, but I really want to retain third and also to finish as top Norwegian."

"For sure this morning was quite good for us and also in the afternoon everything was working a lot better than yesterday and we gained some time on Petter," Ostberg added. "We decided to take a different tyre strategy on Sagen so that we will have better tyres for tomorrow and I think it paid off. That worked out really well but then we had an electrical problem in the car which cut the engine. It was just over a few hundred meters but we lost a lot of time.

"We had hoped to take about ten seconds from Petter on that stage but it didn't happen so it was a bit unfortunate.

"But okay, the gap is only eleven seconds tomorrow and I think it's possible because tomorrow it's all flat-out and no strategy. I want the podium for sure, but Petter wants it too so we shall just have to wait and see what happens tomorrow. I think it will be a big fight!"

Behind the battling Norwegians, there is a sizeable 1 minute 10.6 second gap to Evgeny Novikov in fifth in his M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC car. Novikov enjoyed a pretty consistent day and posted top-eight times in seven of the eight stages, including two fourth fastest efforts in SS12 and SS17.

"Everything is working well. We are pushing but it is still very slippery out there with much more ice than I had expected," Novikov stated. "Tomorrow we will push and try to maintain our fifth place. Loeb is just 40 seconds behind us so we need to make sure we have a clean run with no mistakes."

Further back, Sebastien Loeb managed to close in on Henning Solberg and move up into sixth in SS16. Loeb concluded the day 4.9 seconds in front and will now set about trying to close the 44.4 second gap to P5. The Frenchman hasn't enjoyed an exactly great event though, and following his off yesterday (in which he lost almost 2 minutes), he lost time with a spin this morning and then suffered a puncture this afternoon in SS17.

"I won't keep fond memories of today's stages, but we achieved what we set out to achieve despite spinning and picking up a puncture," Loeb noted. "The gap to fifth means that there is not much more I can hope to do at this rally now. Bring on Rally Mexico!"

Of the rest, Patrik Sandell continues to get to grips with the MINI John Cooper Works WRC car in eighth. He seems to have grown in confidence too, with his times improving accordingly. He finished with the fourth best time in the Hagfors Sprint 2, something he also managed earlier in the day on the first run through the 1.87 km Super Special.

"We have had another really good day and I feel I am getting faster and faster," Sandell commented. "Unfortunately on stage 17 I forgot to remove the radiator blank which protects it during the road stages and had to stop on the stage to take it out. This allowed [Martin] Prokop to close right up, but I am confident I can grow my lead tomorrow and continue to develop as a driver. I just want to thank the Prodrive team; they are so professional and they are really helping me to get the best out of myself and the car."

Martin Prokop and Eyvind Brynildsen round out the top ten in their Fiesta RS WRC cars ahead of Sebastien Ogier, Andreas Mikkelsen, Thierry Neuville, P-G Andersson and Armindo Araujo in positions 11 through to 15. Andersson incidentally continues to head the SWRC class, now almost 3 minutes up on Craig Breen.

In terms of retirements, no major names joined day one casualties Dani Sordo and Jari Ketomaa on the sidelines, although Paulo Nobre, who re-started under Rally 2, did lose over 50 minutes when he went off in SS15. He eventually got going again and concluded the day 46th (and last) in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC car. Alister McRae was another to re-join and now lies 38th in his Proton Satria Neo S2000. He was second quickest in his class in SS14, which gives some indication of what might have been, had he not gone off on Friday in SS3.

The event now concludes on Sunday and the final day includes two loops of three stages, with just under 85 competitive kilometres on the bill. SS19, the 15.00 km Lesjofors 1 stage, gets underway at 08.34 hours local time [07.34 hours British time].

Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 18 (Top 10):

1. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC 2hours 30mins 08.0secs M
2. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 23.0secs M
3. Petter Solberg Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 51.4secs M
4. Mads Ostberg Adapta WRT Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 02.5secs
5. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 13.1secs M
6. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +02mins 57.5secs M
7. Henning Solberg Go Fast Energy WRT Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 02.4secs
8. Patrik Sandell Prodrive MINI John Cooper Works WRC +04mins 31.8secs
9. Martin Prokop Czech Ford National Team Fiesta RS WRC +04mins 34.4secs
10. Eyvind Brynildsen Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05mins 08.7secs

Others

11. Sebastien Ogier VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000 +05mins 54.1secs
12. Andreas Mikkelsen VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000 +06mins 06.9secs
13. Thierry Neuville Citroen Junior WRT DS3 WRC +07mins 38.1secs
14. P-G Andersson Proton Motorsport Satria Neo S2000 +07mins 55.7secs S
15. Armindo Araujo WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +10mins 32.2secs M
16. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta S2000 +10mins 54.5secs S
17. Peter Van Merksteijn Van Merksteijn Citroen DS3 WRC +11mins 01.4secs
18. Mikko Pajunen Subaru Impreza STi R4 +11mins 23.0secs
19. Pontus Tidemund Skoda Fabia S2000 +12mins 28.0secs S
20. Michal Solowow M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +12mins 38.6secs M
21. Nasser Al-Attiyah Qatar WRT Citroen DS3 WRC +13mins 15.8secs M
32. Ott Tanak Go Fast Energy WRT Fiesta RS WRC +36mins 39.5secs
39. Alister McRae Proton Motorsport Satria Neo S2000 +1hr 05mins 43.0secs S
44. Paulo Nobre WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +1hr 47mins 18.3secs

SWRC standings after Stage 18 (Top 3):

1. P-G Andersson Proton Motorsport Satria Neo S2000 2hours 38mins 03.7secs S
2. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta S2000 +02mins 58.8secs S
3. Pontus Tidemund Skoda Fabia S2000 +04mins 32.3secs S

Notable retirements:

SS2. Paulo Nobre WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC Went off*
SS8. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta RS WRC Accident
SS8. Dani Sordo Prodrive MINI John Cooper Works WRC Engine

* denotes able to re-start under Rally 2 (new name for SupeRally)

all times unofficial