The lack of snow on the usually pure white stages of Rally Sweden casued problems up and down the field, but Jari-Matti Latvala managed his tyres the best of all the leaders and remained in the top spot at the end of the penultimate, continuing to fend off Mikko Hirvonen by 23 seconds.
The day started well for the overnight leader, winning the opening stage and extending his lead over Hirvonen to 2.2 seconds. Petter Solberg however was heading in the opposite direction, losing time to the leading duo and slipping into the clutches of Adapta Ford driver Mads Ostberg. Ostberg was a man on a mission in the morning loop, determined to make up for problems that had struck his Fiesta before the day’s competitive action had even begun.
“Out of service we had a puncture, just after tyre marking,” he explained. “I only have a used spare so we are running on the left rear with a previously used right hand tyre. I was a bit angry, so I pushed quite hard.”
Sagen brought more of the same, Latvala edging ever so slightly further ahead of former team-mate Hirvonen, while Ostberg gained time but failed to fully capitalise on a stall at the start of the stage by the works Ford driver. The latter dropped several seconds due to the startline error, but by the finish line had clawed back the defecit over the 14km section to just 0.8 seconds.
Ott Tanak looked like he was finally getting into the groove after starting the day in 28th. He had set the third fastest time in the opening stage, but replicated his first day antics by driving into a ditch, losing another 21 minutes.
For once Sebastien Loeb was a surprise appearance at the sharp end of the leaderboard rather than a de facto first place contender. He went third quickest through Stage 13, which represented a change in fortunes for Citroen, as Hirvonen finally made inroads into Latvala’s lead, albeit only 1.9 seconds. While Hirvonen was focused on taking the rally lead, Loeb’s aim for the rest of the event while tracking down Henning Solberg‘s Go Fast Ford was rather more simple.
“Hopefully I can stay on the road a bit more now…” he joked. For once, it seemed the eight times world champion was perhaps out of his depth.
Tanak’s rollercoaster weekend contiuned, but at last for a positive reason. After extracating his Fiesta from a ditch earlier in the day, he won the short Hagfors Sprint, the first WRC stage win of his career. The brief nature of the stage meant there was little change down the leaderboard, with the exception of Loeb, who was finally carving time out of nearest rival Solberg for sixth place – 5.6 seconds in less than 2 kilometres an impressive time gain.
The afternoon loop would be an altogether different challenge. There was an unwelcomed lack of snow on the afternoon stages, which threatened to destory the tyres of any driver who dared push to the limit. It still didn’t stop Latvala going fastest again however, going a tenth quicker than Hirvonen in the first stage of the afternoon loop. Meanwhile, Loeb continued his charge up the leaderboard to within a second of the older Solberg, his sights set firmly on Evgeny Novikov‘s M-Sport Ford in 5th place.
The works Fords stamped their authority on the second pass through Sagen, Latvala leading Solberg in a 1-2 stage result. While the others had been conserving tyres for the following stage, the Nordic duo went for maximum attack, and despite dropping more time Hirvonen was sure he had taken the right approach.
“Let’s see, there’s one [full-length] stage to go and I’ve tried to save my tyres a little bit so let’s see what we can do in the next one,” he said.
Hirvonen did gain time in the following stage, but with only 2.7 seconds recovered, the calculated risk did not pay dividends. Ostberg meanwhile could have potentially gained much more time on Solberg, but an electrical fault with his Fiesta restriced his time gain.
“It was just cutting the engine all the time. I pulled everything and then it went off after a few hundred metres, but we lost a lot from this,” he explained. “I suffered a lot on the last stage to have proper tyres for this stage and then this happens. It’s just a shame. It was a nightmare really.”
Loeb also hit trouble, picking up a puncture which drew him level with Henning Solberg having passed the Norwegian on the previous stage. It gave hope to Novikov, who was “pushing to the maximum” to keep a gap to the pursuing Frenchman.
As the day drew to a close, Tanak replicated his earlier form around the Hagfors Sprint, albeit sharing his second stage victory with Loeb. The non-works Citroens were finally showing some pace, with Nasser Al-Attiyah and Thierry Neuville third and fourth. Rounding out the top five in the final stage of the day was Patrik Sandell, who had suffered a scare in the Fredriksberg stage after leaving a protective shield in his Mini, causing the engine to overheat and drop half a minute.
Per-Gunnar Andersson continues to lead the SWRC class, although Craig Breen had been making inroads on the Swede’s two minute advantage during the morning loop of stages. However, a full damper change for Andersson’s Proton saw a reversal in fortunes, and eventually saw his two minute lead grow to three minutes by the end of the day.
“It was quite tricky this morning, the rear of the car was sliding all of the time,” explained Andersson. “But this afternoon, it was perfect. We changed all of the dampers on the car and it was very good fun to drive again. It's not so nice to watch as your rivals are taking your lead away!”
Breen suffered problems of his own in the afternoon re-run of Fredriksberg, a shattered brake disc ending any hopes of catching the flying Andersson. He holds a comfortable lead over Pontus Tidemand however, who in turn is over five minutes up on Hayden Paddon, with both Skoda drivers making their first SWRC starts of the season.
Alister McRae is still last after problems on Friday, but with Maciej Oleksowicz starting the final day of the event under Rally 2 regulations due to a broken engine, the Scot has a chance to at least gain one position before the end of the rally.
|1.||3||Jari-Matti Latvala||Ford WRT||2:30:08.0|
|3.||4||Petter Solberg||Ford WRT||+51.4|
|4.||15||Mads Ã˜stberg||Adapta Ford||+1:02.5|
|5.||6||Evgeny Novikov||M-Sport Ford||+2:13.1|
|7.||10||Henning Solberg||Go Fast Ford||+3:02.4|
|8.||52||Patrik Sandell||Prodrive Mini||+4:31.8|
|9.||21||Martin Prokop||Czech Ford||+4:34.4|
|10.||64||Eyvind Brynildsen||Adapta Ford||+5:08.7|
|5.||36||Yazeed Al Rajhi||Ford||+13:55.6|