Finland - day 2: Loeb set to break Finland duck?
2 August 2008
Citroen's Sebastien Loeb managed to slightly increase his overnight lead on day two of the Neste Oil Rally Finland, concluding the leg with the margin up from 14.4 seconds to 18.2.
There wasn't nothing much to choose between Loeb and local hero Mikko Hirvonen for much of the day and it wasn't until the final two stages that Seb finally inched further in front, in part because Mikko had trouble getting off the line prior to the penultimate stage.
The four-time world champion now looks poised for yet another historic achievement in his illustrious career and if he does manage to get through Sunday's short final leg he will become only the fourth non-Nordic driver to win the event in 57 years, joining previous winners Markko Martin (2003), Didier Auriol (1992) and Carlos Sainz (1990).
"What a day! It has been really tough," said Loeb, who won four stages today to add to the ten he took on day 1. "The gap between me and Mikko is still the same really. It has been a fantastic and hard fight. There is nothing else I can do - I've driven flat out all day."
Hirvonen meanwhile reckoned that neither of them could have done much more. He also pointed that they were both lucky to get away with pushing so much: "Seb is fast on the narrow sections but I am quick where it's wide," Mikko added. "I am absolutely amazed at the speeds we have both been driving. You have to have absolute blind faith in your pace-notes and drive with complete commitment.
"There were times when parts of the road were covered in bushes and branches and they could have been hiding all sorts of big rocks. The fact that they didn't was just pure luck."
Chris Atkinson is next up and set for the final spot on the podium, quite a turnaround after he struggled on the opening day and finished the first leg in seventh - 50 seconds or so off P3.
Chris felt more comfortable on Saturday however, and posted top five times in every single test bar one - including two third fastest times in SS12 and SS18. He finally overhauled Dani Sordo for third in the last test and will go into the final leg one second in front.
"The car has been consistent today, which has helped me to improve my times," he explained. "We've come from somewhere like eighth this morning to a podium position now. That is great!"
Sordo in contrast was disappointed with his pace in the final loop, but with only 1 second between him and Atkinson, it is clear the battle for P3 is far, far from over and the Citroen #2 still has three tests to reclaim the spot.
Further down the order Henning Solberg completes the top five, the Norwegian said that he just wasn't able to find a good rhythm. He had been third overnight, but now finds himself almost 30 seconds off the battle between Atkinson and Sordo.
"It has been a difficult day. I'm driving quite hard and my times are really good on the fast sections and the car feels great. But on the narrow roads I just struggle to make it work well," he explained.
"The feeling isn't the same as yesterday and I thought the new stages today would work to my advantage but they haven't. We had a few moments, especially at the corner where Gigi went off, so I backed off in that stage as it was very difficult but also very fast. So the plan tomorrow is to get to the finish safely; we are still in line for some good points."
Petter Solberg trails his brother - 30 seconds or so further back and while Atkinson seemed to get to grips with the new Impreza WRC2008 today 'Hollywood' didn't make much progress.
"That was not good," said the 2003 world rally champion. "The car was strange. It didn't work at all."
Ford privateer Matti Rantanen and Suzuki's Toni Gardemeister round out the points' scorers in seventh and eighth, the latter sticking at it despite being in pain after injuring his shoulder on day 1.
Gardemeister also lost over 60 seconds this morning when the power steering failed, but despite that he is still on course to take the final point with the new 'B-spec' SX4 WRC, 25 seconds up on Britain's Matthew Wilson.
PH Sport-Citroen man Conrad Rautenbach finished proceedings in tenth, with Khalid Al-Qassimi eleventh in the 'third' BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT entry.
Of the other World Rally Car drivers, Jari-Matti Latvala, Andreas Mikkelsen and Urmo Aava all re-started under the SupeRally after offs on day 1.
Latvala regained his confidence after his gaff in SS3 and set three fastest times. The time lost on Friday though, means he is still way down the order. Mikkelsen and Aava also did well on day 2 and finished up back inside the top 20.
Gigi Galli was the biggest casualty on day two, crashing out in SS16, near the end of Kakaristo 1 when he rolled his car. He had been third overall going into that test, 7.4 seconds up on Dani Sordo. He will not be able to re-start.
Galli wasn't the only retirement on day 2, as Suzuki's Per-Gunnar Andersson also went off at the same spot in SS16, while Munchi's Ford man Federico Villagra went out in the penultimate stage.
Luis-Perez Companc was forced to join his team-mate on the sidelines too post-SS21 - the last test of the leg - after his co-driver, José María Volta complained of rib pain following a heavy impact with a rock. Volta has since been taken to hospital for 'precautionary checks'. Companc and Villagra will not re-start on day 3.
In the P-WRC, Juho Hanninen now has a commanding 2 minute lead over Patrik Flodin, following the exit of Juha Salo, which incidentally occurred in SS16 at that same spot that Galli and P-G went out. As for the J-WRC, the battle between Martin Prokop and Michal Kosciuszko ended in SS20, when the latter lost over 1.5 minutes and dropped to third. Prokop now leads Patrik Sandell by 48.4 seconds.
The action now continues on Sunday and the final leg is a short, sharp affair. After leaving Jyväskylä at 08.20 hours, drivers face just three stages east of the city covering 40.47km before the finish ceremony at 13.30 hours [all times local].