BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen has retained his lead on the Pioneer Rally Japan following the second leg on Saturday, which was the longest of the event and accounts for half the event's total stage mileage.

Hirvonen, who began proceedings with a 26.2 second cushion, stretched his lead slightly in the first two stages, before team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala took 10.9 seconds out of him in SS13. The Finn thus finished the morning loop with his advantage cut back to 16.9 seconds.

In the afternoon, Mikko managed to increase his lead back to 21 seconds, before conceding 5 seconds to his fellow countryman in the first run over the Sapporo Dome super special.

The Finn will now take a 15.5 second lead into the final day and while he knows victory won't be enough to keep his championship hopes alive, the 1-2 finish will be good news for Ford in terms of the manufacturers'.

"We are now in a good position to win this rally and to score the maximum points' for Ford with Jari-Matti being second," said Hirvonen. "Of course if Sebastien stays third then the driver's title will be over but we have no choice. All we can do now is stay concentrated in order to make it to the finish."

Latvala meanwhile spent the day focusing on Loeb and trying to stay ahead of the Frenchman. He set the fastest time on the morning's third test and added another stage win this afternoon. He concluded the day having increased the margin over the Citroen man from 4.4 seconds to almost 40.

"No trouble, no mistakes and very good pace," he summarised. "Mikko was also very strong and fast in front of us so as long as Sebastien stays behind we are happy. As soon as he lost time we eased the pace because the road conditions were terrible. The target now is clearly to secure the one-two for Ford."

Loeb for his part wasn't really bothered about challenging for second and knowing that third position will be enough to allow him to clinch his fifth world title, the Frenchman concentrated on making sure he had no problems or dramas.

"It's no secret that I prefer competing to win. Today, though, it was necessary to keep a cool head," he stated. "The forest tracks to the south of Sapporo were just as narrow as those we visited on Day 1, but they were faster, too, which means we ran a higher risk of making a mistake. Whenever I felt that the conditions were a little too treacherous, I didn't hesitate to brake earlier than normal.

"There's a great deal at stake here and I didn't want it risk throwing it all away; we just tried to stay focused on our objective which was to consolidate our third place, and I think we succeeded quite well."

Further down the order, Subaru's Chris Atkinson is fourth, and while he dropped behind his team-mate, Petter Solberg in SS12, he re-gained the spot in SS18, when the Norwegian went off and damaged his suspension.

"Today was ok; we started ahead of Petter but he was a little quicker and got in front," Atkinson noted. "But then he had his accident which is unlucky for the team and the Subaru fans as we were both in good positions and you never know what could happen on this rally.

"In stage 18, when Petter went off it left a big hole in the ground and we hit it as well and spun round. We damaged our suspension a little bit, but ok we could drive still, but not flat out. I think we are too far behind to push for third tomorrow so the main aim is to keep our position."

Stobart Ford's Matthew Wilson is next up followed by the two Suzuki's of Toni Gardemeister and Per-Gunnar Andersson.

P-G dropped two minutes and two places with a puncture on the repeat loop, but moved back into the points when Petter Solberg and his brother Henning hit problems late on. Henning incidentally retired one stage before Petter with broken suspension.

"It was a real shame we had the puncture, but the roads were so rough that it was inevitable this would happen to somebody," said P-G. "We came into a junction nine kilometres from the start [in SS16] and the soft ground just pulled the tyre off the wheel rim, so I had to stop and change it.

"That shouldn't take anything away from what has been an extremely positive day for us though. We've been second-fastest on a stage, fifth overall, and the car has been completely reliable: that's a sign of really solid progress."

Of the rest Federico Villagra rounds out the points' scorers in eighth, followed by Group N leader Jari-Ketomaa and P-WRC front runner, Evgeny Novikov.

Novikov held top stop in the Production Car World Rally Championship category all day and finished it 19.1 seconds up on Juho Hanninen. Toshi Arai is third in the P-WRC, 1.7 seconds further back.

In terms of retirements, the Solberg's brothers were the only big casualties on day two, both going out on the repeat loop. It is not yet known if they will re-start on Sunday under the SupeRally format, like Dani Sordo and Conrad Rautenbach did today.

Sordo and Rautenbach finished proceedings classified in 18th and 36th respectively.

Francois Duval was unable to rejoin following his big off on Friday and his co-driver, Patrick Pivato is currently said to be in a 'stable' but 'critical condition' after suffering a fractured pelvis, fractured tibia and internal bleeding in the incident in SS6.

The action now concludes on Sunday and nine stages make up the final leg's competition. After a 06.00 start from Sapporo, the route again heads south towards the cost at Tomokamai. Competitors face two identical loops of four tests, split by a final pass through the Sapporo Dome super special stage, providing 96.43km of competition. The finish takes place in the Dome at 15.00 [all times local].



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