Mikko Hirvonen has extended his lead over BP Ford
team-mate Marcus Gronholm to nearly 20 seconds after the second leg of Rally Norway, but the fight for victory now seems certain to be a two horse race following an uncharacteristically poor day for Sebastien Loeb.
The leading three had been the only real contenders for victory going into Saturday's six stages, and while all three came through the longest stage of the event – the first of the day – unscathed, things would unravel for the Citroen
ace later in the day…
For Hirvonen however, it was another solid day at the wheel as he produced an assured display to slightly extend the lead he had enjoyed overnight. The young Finn posted fastest times on two of the days stages and, although slower than Gronholm over the closing stages of the afternoon, he will lead the way into the four stages that make up the final leg of the event.
Gronholm was never outside the top three on any of the day's stages and ended the leg with three stage wins in a row – despite overshooting a junction on the penultimate run of the day. Gronholm is comfortably clear of third placed Petter Solberg, with the Subaru man nearly three and a half minutes further back.
Solberg inherited his provisional podium place after a disastrous day for Loeb, who had looked like he could challenge for the lead after a flying finish to leg one. The first run through Elverum saw him lose time to the two Fords and after winning the following stage he was third fastest again on SS11, putting him 40 seconds off Hirvonen's pace and 20 behind Gronholm.
However, after making it through the tricky Mountain 1 stage in one piece, things fell apart for Loeb on SS12, at just 5.98km the second shortest of the whole event. His C4 went straight on at a junction and became stuck in a snowbank, leading to a loss of eight minutes and the 67th fastest stage time. As a result, Loeb dropped to eleventh, but on the very next test, things got even worse – the Frenchman stopping twice and losing a further nine minutes to plummet down to 18th place. With a points scoring finish some ten minutes ahead of him, Loeb looks set to lose ground in the title race, while the retirement of Dani Sordo from the leg on he opening stage means Citroen
face the prospect of failing to score any manufacturer points as Ford head towards a maximum 18.
Solberg lies third in his Subaru despite finding the going far from easy during the day in his Impreza. The Norwegian was close the pace on the majority of the stages with the exception of the 24.36km Mountain test, when he would only post the 17th fastest time. With brother Henning eating into his advantage during the afternoon in the leading Stobart
Focus, the pair are split by little more than ten seconds going into the final day.
Solberg's team-mate Jari Matti-Latvala continued to fight back from his Friday penalties during the course of the leg, with his Focus climbing up from tenth place to fifth by the end of the day. For Latvala however, a lonely final day lies ahead, with the Solberg/Solberg battle over a minute ahead and sixth placed Manfred Stohl nearly a minute behind. The Austrian posted just two top ten times during the leg, but still made up two places due to the misfortune of others.
Gigi Galli made up a place on the opening stage of the day but the Italian would then slip back once again as, like Loeb, he lost time on the Lillehammer stage. For Galli, the time loss was only a few minutes, but it dropped him down to seventh where he overnights ten seconds behind Stohl. Xavier Pons completes the points scorers having climbed up from 17th place after a steady drive. Daniel Carlsson and Jan Kopecky round out the top ten.