Mikko Hirvonen will lead into the second day of Rally Sweden, leading reigning world champion Sebastien Loeb by a mere 6.2 seconds – with his team-mate Dani Sordo shade over two seconds further back in the other Citroen.
After Sordon won Thursday’s Superspecial, Loeb took the lead on Friday’s opening stage, and also began the day of woes for Kimi Raikkonen, who got stuck in Khalid Al Qassimi‘s dust for half of the stage after the latter got stuck in a snow bank.
“I think for more than half of the stage he was right in front and we couldn’t see anything,” said a deflated Raikkonen. “Not a good start, but what can you do?”
The Citroen pair held position on the second stage – and Petter Solberg was starting to make up for lost time after a spin in the previous day’s superspecial – moving up to 8th place.
But just before lunchtime service – Hirvonen fought back. He won stage four and took second place from Sordo by two seconds – but the other drivers in the Ford camp were not so happy.
Both Jari-Matti Latvala and Marcus Gronholm were struggling for pace – the former trying to recover from a confidence-shattering season last year and the latter simply because he has been out of the car for so long.
“The rhythm is difficult to find here,” Latvala explained. “I’m braking too early, not being brave enough in some corners. Okay, we’re not too far away [from the leaders] but we can’t lose more than this. We need to come up with some ideas in service.”
Gronholm was in a similar frame of mind heading into the afternoon loop of stages; “For now it doesn’t feel like my car,” he said. “We need to do something but for the moment I don’t really know what. I need to find more confidence.”
But the afternoon loop of stages started to cause mayhem – the thick sheet of ice that had covered Stage 2 had long gone, and the roads had become rutted.
Hirvonen snatched the lead despite saying at the end of that stage that “this stage might have cost me alot,” as it was much worse for Loeb. He dropped 10 seconds to the find and went down the leaderboard to 3rd.
“There’s nothing wrong with my car – it’s the road conditions,” Loeb shrugged. “There are lots of ruts with snow inside. I expected it and I knew I had no chance. I tried as much as I could, and took more risks in the second pass that I did earlier, but the time is not so good. I don’t like these conditions.”
Meanwhile in the lower points places people were flying off the road left, right and centre. Firstly Solberg went off the road and damaged the rear of his car – losing four minutes. This meant Matthew Wilson had caught up to the Norwegian – and when he went off the road again Wilson got by. But under 10km from the stage finish Wilson stalled at a junction, and Solberg ploughed into the back of the stranded Ford. Both cars were quite damaged and lucky to be able to continue.
The most amazing part however is that in all that chaos, Wilson actually gained a place in the standings – Mads Ostberg‘s Subaru Impreza had more engine warning lights than you could shake a stick at, and it put him off his driving enough to see him crash out of 7th place.
The following stage claimed more high-profile victims – firstly Gronholm, but due to his car rather than his driving. His car suffered an electrical fault just 2 kilometers from the stage start and came to a halt in the middle of the road. He spent the next twelve minutes flicking every switch on the car until it eventually spluttered back into life.
Meanwhile Raikkonen dropped out of the Top 50 by getting stuck in a snow bank, dropping 26 minutes in the process. Loeb and Sordo swapped places for second while Latvala finally started to get moving properly – winning the stage; “We raised the ride height and the difference was incredible – it was a different car to drive!”
The only change in the last two stages of the day was Wilson falling back behind Ostberg, by 0.8 seconds in the day’s closing Superspecial stage.
“This afternoon the conditions were strange,” said Hirvonen. “In places the roads were bumpy with deep ruts that acted like railway lines. In other places there was deep ice but no clear driving line and the penultimate stage was gravel with no ruts at all. It was generally very rough and the person who was brave enough to just go for it was the one who was fastest. I was on the limit many times. I’m not afraid of being first through the stages tomorrow and I will attack because my lead isn’t big enough.”
Meanwhile in the new Super 2000 championship PG Andersson dominated the opening day – winning all 8 stages to open up a lead of almost a minute in his Skoda Fabia, and was clearly enjoying a comeback to the WRC stages.
“I’m very happy, though winning all the stages so far was a little unexpected,” he said. “The car feels very good today. When we started testing I had to do what the car wanted, now it is the opposite.”
The two Ford Fiestas of Janne Tuohino and Martin Prokop were second and third despite both losing a rear window at some point during the day.
Patrik Sandell was fourth despite having a weekend akin to an episode of Wacky Racers – his car developed fault after fault as well as having Gronholm’s Focus blocking him through stage six.
“It’s been a really bad morning,” Sandell said. “SS2 was too slow and I stalled at the start of the next two stages. After that I couldn’t really feel my groove. I had too much grip in the rear tyres into corners so I couldn’t place the car correctly.”
It got worse in stage five – he overshot a junction and his gearbox wouldn’t select reverse – so he had to get spectators to push his car back in the right direction.
Eyvind Brynildsen was another contender for victory here – he won the superspecial on Thursday night so lead going into Friday’s stages, but a spin on stage three dropped him over 3 minutes and out of contention for the win.
In the PWRC Patrik Flodin holds a narrow lead over fellow Scandanavian Anders Grondal. Flodin won all four stages prior to mid-day service, but Grondal closed the gap in the afternoon. Though Flodin seemed to be playing mind games with the young Norwegian at the end of the day, claiming “I let Grondal get in front, because I want a fight.”
The fight for third place is also close between Martin Semerad and reigning champion Armindo Araujo, but the latter was not at all confident going into Saturday’s stages.
“I have had no particular problems, just generally poor stages. The car has completely the wrong set-up. If it carries on like this, it will be very difficult to make the podium.”
Day One Results
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap 1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 1h08m04.8s 2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 6.2s 3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 10.6s 4. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 31.7s 5. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 1m10.9s 6. Henning Solberg Ford + 2m16.2s 7. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 3m20.2s 8. Matthew Wilson Ford + 3m21.1s 9. P-G Andersson Skoda + 4m16.1s 10. Janne Tuohino Ford + 5m15.3s