Defending winner Mikko Hirvonen has snatched the lead of the 2011 Rally Sweden from surprise package Mads ?stberg as the event reaches its midway point and is fast developing into a four-way thriller - but the man really on the move is former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, who has slashed the deficit to the leading duo to barely half a minute.

Although ?stberg led overnight, it is Hirvonen who has hit the front following Saturday morning's four-stage loop, as the Finn overturned his M-Sport Stobart rival's 14.8-second advantage to move ahead by a scant three tenths of a second in his new Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team Fiesta WRC. Hirvonen gained the most time on ?stberg on SS8, the day's opening run through Lesj?fors.

"I didn't know how much loose snow there would be on the road," explained the 2008 and 2009 World Rally Championship runner-up, speaking from the midday service halt at Hagfors. "There was some and I lost a little time by ploughing it, but there was nothing like as much as yesterday. The sun was still low on the second stage, and it wasn't easy driving into sixth-gear corners when I couldn't see where the road went.

"I've really tried to push hard, and some places are cleaning more than others. There is still a long way to go, but the car feels fantastic so there is no need to change anything and it's great fun being involved in such a big fight for the lead!"

?stberg revealed that he had been hampered by running first-on-the-road and as the effective snow plough through the icy, snowbound forests of central Sweden in temperatures of as low as -17?C, as the Norwegian confessed that 'it's been really tricky at times' - before adding that he had actually 'expected to lose more time'.

Solberg remains third, although from being 57 seconds behind the leader in his privately-run Citro?n DS3 WRC overnight, 'Hollywood' is now only 31 seconds adrift and fast homing in. The 36-year-old set the pace on two of Saturday morning's stages, and would have been even closer to Hirvonen and ?stberg had it not been for a ten-second penalty for late arrival at the start of SS10. Palpably enjoying himself, the 13-time rally-winner insists that 'everything is possible' and 'we will keep pushing'.

Jari-Matti Latvala is fourth in the second works Ford entry, as the final competitor in a leading quartet covered by less than three-quarters-of-a-minute. Despite proving to be the very model of consistency with the third-quickest time on all four stages, still the 25-year-old admitted he was not wholly satisfied with his performance.

"I had a great feeling with the car and I enjoyed myself," he remarked, "but when I saw drivers going faster than me, I pushed hard and became too aggressive. I found it difficult to calm down and settle into a good rhythm. During my test before the rally I had a smooth rhythm, and I need to find that again. It's not the car that's the problem - it's the driver! I should be fighting with Petter - so I need to improve."

After fifth-placed Henning Solberg suffered a power-steering problem leaving service and subsequently rolled on Saturday's opening stage, S?bastien Ogier inherited the position, with the Frenchman now more than a minute-and-a-half ahead of Citro?n Total World Rally Team team-mate, countryman and namesake S?bastien Loeb, who lost time when he hit a snow bank and picked up a puncture, though the WRC's 'record man' could at least take heart from setting the fastest time on SS8.

Per-Gunnar Andersson paced SS10 and set the second-best time on SS11 to move into seventh as he continues to recover from a troubled opening day, with compatriot Patik Sandell an impressive eighth in his Skoda Fabia. Former F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen runs ninth in his Ice 1 Racing Citro?n DS3 WRC, ahead of runaway Production World Rally Championship leader Anders Grondal, who completes the top ten.

PWRC rival Patrik Flodin - the only man anywhere close to the Norwegian in the class - was excluded from the event after the wheel rims on his Subaru Impreza were found not to conform to technical regulations. Third-placed Valeriy Gorban stunned by claiming the fastest time of all on SS10 in his Mitsubishi Evo.

Matthew Wilson is twelfth, paying the price for a brace of hefty errors on SS10, Fredriksberg, but proving to be consistently inside the top ten elsewhere, whilst Ken Block lost two minutes when he went off the road on SS11, leaving the American 15th overall.

Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 11 (Top 10):

1. Mikko HirvonenFord Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC1hour 54mins 57.5secs M
2. Mads OstbergM-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 00.3secs M
3. Petter SolbergPSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC+00mins 31.0secs A1
4. Jari-Matti LatvalaFord Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC+00mins 44.3secs M
5. Sebastien OgierCitroen Total WRT DS3 WRC+01mins 10.0secs M
6. Sebastien LoebCitroen Total WRT DS3 WRC+02mins 43.6secs M
7. PG AnderssonFord Fiesta RS WRC+04mins 11.0secs A1
8. Patrik SandellSkoda Fabia S2000+04mins 19.8secs A2
9. Kimi RaikkonenICE 1 Racing Citroen DS3 WRC+05mins 22.4secs M
10. Anders GrondalSubaru Impreza STi+07mins 00.0secs P


11. Khalid Al-QassimiTeam Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC+07mins 03.7secs A1
12. Matt WilsonM-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC+07mins 07.6secs A1
13. Martin ProkopFord Fiesta S2000+07mins 38.9secs A2
14. Denis KuipersFERM Powertools Ford Fiesta RS WRC+08mins 19.7secs M
15. Ken BlockMonster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC+11mins 57.0secs M
27. Henning SolbergM-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC+21mins 23.8secs M
29. Eyvind BrynildsenSkoda Fabia S2000+22mins 24.7secs A2

PWRC standings after Stage 11 (Top 3):

1. Anders GrondalSubaru Impreza STi1hour 21mins 51.5secs P
2. Martin SemeradMitsubishi Lancer Evo IX+05mins 40.5secs P
3. Valeriy Gorban Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX+08mins 57.4secs P

Notable retirements:

EXC. Patrik FlodinSubaru Impreza STi P

all times unofficial



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