Jari-Matti Latvala heads into the final day of competition for Rally New Zealand clutching onto a somewhat unwanted lead after tactics came into play for title protagonists Mikko Hirvonen
and Sebastien Loeb.
As expected, the final order for the day would be a pale comparison of how it should have looked, with both Hirvonen and Loeb stopping before the end of the final stage to slip back down the running order.
Up to that point, Loeb had swept past Hirvonen into the lead but was unlikely to build up a big enough buffer over the Finn to compensate for running first on the road on leg three. Indeed, Hirvonen did a fine job of keeping Loeb in his sights throughout the day and has been rewarded with second place on the road.
In the battle of wills at the end of the stage, Loeb held out longest to drop from first to third, the Frenchman deliberately losing 26secs, while Hirvonen conceded 18secs himself.
All this means is that Latvala has instead come into play, the Finn enjoying a strong second day as he diced up at the front of the field on ever stage. Although his lead, which is still a fair 9.3secs over Hirvonen and 13.3secs over Loeb, remains rather artificial, it does not take away from the fact he too has broken down a 30secs gap to his team-mate over the day.
Latvala will likely suffer for his team though with five stages – two of them new - left to run and a total of 83kms of barely touched terrain waiting for him to sweep.
Although the tactical engineering employed by Ford and Citroen
is unlikely to go down well with some WRC fans, one positive thing it has done is expand the battle for the lead to four as Dani Sordo is now suddenly right up there again.
While his slightly lacklustre pace means he didn't ever need to slow down at any time, Sordo's steady strategy has still placed him to within 15.7secs of Latvala and, of the top four, he arguably has the best position on the road. While it would take a mighty effort for him to snatch victory off Hirvonen, Loeb or even Latvala, Sordo looks a far stronger bet for a podium than he did just a couple of stages ago.
While the top four make up most of the headlines ahead of what is likely to be a thrilling finish to this intriguing event, day two otherwise belonged to Henning Solberg. Recovering from his myriad of woes yesterday, Solberg's advantageous road position helped him towards the fastest time in four of the days' seven stages.