Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala has concluded the second full-day of competition in Sweden with a slender 3.6 second lead over team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen.
Latvala had extended his lead to 10.1 seconds following SS14 this afternoon, but Mikkelsen came back at him in SS15 and then reduced the margin further in the short 1.90km Karlstad super special, which concluded the day's proceedings.
“It is obviously a great feeling to lead the Rally Sweden,” Latvala remarked in the end of leg service. "[But] at the same time, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
“Saturday is the longest day, and it will be all about looking after the studded tyres as well as possible, right up until the finish ramp in Karlstad. The spikes break very quickly on gravel, and you lose an awful lot of grip then.
"Today was very good for long periods and we were able to open up a small gap ahead of our team-mates. However, we then lost a lot of time on the penultimate stage. That just goes to show that the rally is still very open. We will continue our battle with Andreas Mikkelsen tomorrow. It would be awesome to win the Rally Sweden for a third time.”
“A fantastic day for us, and I am very happy with the way the Rally Sweden is panning out for me,” Mikkelsen added. “I am yet to stand on the podium in the World Rally Championship, and that is exactly where I would dearly love to end this rally. However, I am a born-and-bred rally driver, and victory is within my grasp. I tried to keep up the pressure on my team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, but without taking too many risks. That was a real balancing act, which we pulled off really well. Tomorrow is another long day of rallying, and we want to go about our work calmly and intelligently.”
Mads Ostberg meanwhile completes the provisional podium in his Citroen DS3 WRC car, 39.4 seconds off P2 and 19.8 seconds up on M-Sport WRT number one Mikko Hirvonen.
“I'm starting to understand where we are losing time compared to the fastest drivers,” Ostberg noted. “But it's difficult to find those extra few seconds. I'm trying to change my driving style so I can close the gap. The goal is to keep it up and try and hold onto our position until the end.”
“There was a lot of gravel on the second pass today – the roads were almost completely destroyed," Hirvonen added. "Of course there have been some gravel lines in previous years, but I have never seen such deep ruts like this. It's not perfect conditions and it's hard on the tyres, but that is just the way it is.
“There is a bit of a gap to Mads now, but I'm not going to let him get away so easily. Tomorrow will be even more tricky than today, and as we've already seen, anything can happen. I'll be there putting the pressure on him, that's for sure.”
Behind, Ott Tanak completes the top five and he is only 5.9 seconds adrift of Hirvonen: “Well, this was something new! The stages are mainly gravel now with just a few patches of snow which are quite slippery. It was really difficult to judge where you should look after the tyres and where you should go fast. We took it steady with no big moments, so it was actually quite nice to drive!” Tanak remarked.
“Tomorrow we just need to carry on with the same speed. We've done well today, especially in the afternoon, and the work inside the car [with the pacenotes] is improving as well. This morning was quite tricky for us. There are a lot of new things and this is only my co-driver's second WRC event. We worked hard during service to improve and it was good to see that everything was going in the right direction.
“We had quite a nice fight with Mikko and Mads too but we weren't really pushing and I don't think we have the same objectives as they do for this event. For the moment, we are just looking at our own pace and not taking any unnecessary risks. I just want to drive, get the mileage down and then see what happens.”
Britain's Kris Meeke lies sixth, with Henning Solberg seventh having jumped ahead of Pontus Tidemand in the final test of the day.
“The conditions were changing a lot this morning,” Meeke stated. “As more cars came through the stages, the gravel was increasingly exposed under the snow. There was a lot more grip. I was pleased with my consistency, especially as some of the others ran into problems. I'm now sixth overall, and to be honest, that's beyond the expectations I had for this rally.”
“I am pushing on every stage but it has been really tricky out there,” Henning noted. “You have to really concentrate to keep the line and keep the car on the road. The car was a bit too low through SS14 so we took it steady through there, but all in all I think it has been another good day for us. We are still here and still enjoying it – that is the main thing.”
Of the rest, Sebastien Ogier is now ninth, having hauled himself back up into the points following his off in SS8 this morning when he put his Polo R WRC in a snowbank. The Frenchman 'passed' Elfyn Evans in SS16 and is now 3.4 seconds in front.
“That's rallying!” Ogier said philosophically, when asked about his error in Lesjofors 1. “We skidded into a snow wall twelve kilometres into the test. It was a slow corner, which is perhaps why I lost my concentration a little. I missed the entry to the corner and next thing we knew we were stuck. A stupid mistake, but these things happen. Thank you to all the fans who helped us out. We obviously have nothing to lose now.
“The conditions are not easy, but we will do our best to still pick up valuable points towards the World Championship. The realistic goal for Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and me is now sixth place. However, I hope for the sake of our team that Andreas and Jari-Matti top the standings come the end of the rally.”
"There is so much gravel on the stages now that you have to really concentrate and think about everything you do," Evans continued. "You need to look after the tyres, judge the grip and stay on the line, all whilst driving as quickly as you can – it's certainly a new experience.
“We tried something a little different through the afternoon stages, but I'm yet to see if that will have any benefit. We're just taking the time to learn as much as we can and make it to the end of the rally without incident. We're in a points-paying position now, so if we can hold on to that tomorrow I think it would be a very good result for us.”
In WRC2, Yazeed Al-Rajhi looks set for the class honours, having increased his overnight lead to 1 minute 30.1 seconds – roughly a threefold increase. Jari Ketomaa and Karl Kruuda are second and third in class.
As for retirements, day two claimed both Thierry Neuville and Juho Hanninen. Hyundai has since confirmed that both will be able to re-start under the Rally 2 rules. Robert Kubica also had problems, and lost over 20 minutes this afternoon with two offs. He could however continue, albeit now down in 29th position.
“It was a good day in terms of learning the stages and improving the times in these difficult conditions, unfortunately we have also been very unlucky," Kubica lamented. "On SS12 we were very unfortunate. Coming over a crest there was a sharp corner and we landed slightly off line, the snow banks are so soft that we got dragged in. It was a new experience more than anything else.
“Then on SS14, I think we were driving really nicely until close to the end. I lost the line, touched another bank, and again got pulled in. I have to thank all the fans because without them I think I would still be there – they have done a great job today!”
Rally Sweden now concludes on Saturday, with eight stages on the bill and a total competitive distance of 142.16 kilometres - the longest leg of the event. SS17, the 11.32 kilometre Hara 1 test, is due to start at 07.55 hours local time [06.55 hours UK time].
Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 16 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1hr 48m 47.6s
2. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 03.6s
3. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 43.0s
4. Mikko Hirvonen
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 02.8s
5. Ott Tanak
M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 08.7s
6. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +02m 30.9s
7. Henning Solberg
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 46.6s
8. Pontus Tidemand
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 48.4s
9. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +03m 38.4s
10. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03m 41.8s
11. Craig Breen
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +04m 55.3s
12. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +06m 45.9s
13. Jari Ketomaa
Drive DMACK WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +08m 16.0s
14. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +08m 22.1s
15. Karl Kruuda
Ford Fiesta S2000 +09m 04.4s
16. Fredrik Ahlin
Ford Fiesta R5 +09m 27.9s
17. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta R5 +09m 39.0s
18. Khalid Al-Qassimi
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +09m 53.4s
29. Robert Kubica
RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +24m 19.7s
WRC2 standings after Stage 16 (Top 3):
1. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC 1hr 55m 33.5s
2. Jari Ketomaa
Drive DMACK WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +01m 30.1s
3. Karl Kruuda
Ford Fiesta S2000 +02m 18.5s
SS8. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC Hit a rock
SS11. Anders Grondal
Subaru Impreza STi N16 Engine
SS12. Juho Hanninen
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC Pulled front right wheel off
*Will re-start under the Rally 2 regulations
all times unofficial