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New Zealand - day 2: Latvala moves ahead

30 August 2008

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.

The most prolific performance for a Munchi's Ford since entering WRC last year, while it would be easy to credit Solberg's performance entirely down to where he was running on the road, he was still considerably quicker than Matthew Wilson and Chris Atkinson, both of whom actually started behind him. Although it is staunch reward for his mighty efforts, Solberg is now up to 13th place overall.

Given the build up to his first gravel rally of the season, Francois Duval's Rally New Zealand is bordering on the anonymous in fifth place. The Belgian has not dropped outside the top ten stage times at any point and has lost just 13secs to the leaders today. His aim must surely now be to keep his Ford Focus pointing in the correct direction in order to collect four hard fought points.

Urmo Aava and Petter Solberg continue to dispute sixth, with the Estonian winning out despite a spin earlier in the day that lost him 50secs. Briefly losing the position to Solberg, Aava is now back ahead, although just three seconds separate them at the end of the day.
Continuing to bemoan his difficult weekend, Solberg at least had some reason to smile when he went fourth quickest through Te Akau North, his most competitive performance of the rally yet.

Rounding out the provisional points positions continues to be Suzuki's Per-Gunnar Andersson, although there is the distinct impression that the Swede has backed right off in order to ensure he collects some much needed reward for his performance. Now 1min 40secs behind Solberg having previously been dicing with the Subaru, Andersson complained of grip issues but was otherwise free of technical woe for the second day in a row.

The same can't quite be said for team-mate Toni Gardemeister, who holds onto ninth despite nearly mowing down his crew when his brakes and clutch failed at the end of SS10. A loss of fluid was to blame but the Finn is now fighting fit again, albeit just 19secs up on Federico Villagra in tenth place.

Elsewhere, Wilson and Atkinson are pumping in top ten stage times, but are well down the order They remain the only noted WRC-specification retirements on the rally so far and are competing under SupeRally.

It is all change in the Production WRC class, meanwhile, after long-time leader Mirco Baldacci hit gearbox problems and lost nearly ten minutes. His advantage had been eroded down to less than 2secs when he stopped, but his loss has instead paved the way for Martin Prokop, the Czech driver assuming his advantage and heading into the final day with a healthy 1min 18.8secs lead.

He holds that that advantage over Patrick Sandell, who moves up from fourth to second after 17-year-old Evgeny Novikov saw his superb rally come to an end too with an off on SS13. Martin Rauam is third to make it a Mitsubishi 1-2-3.


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