FIA World Rally Championship

Hirvonen edges further ahead after Day Two

7 Mins read

Mikko Hirvonen extended his lead of Rally Sweden further over Sebastien Loeb to 16.6 seconds – however the two had been neck and neck for most of the day.

Stage 8 was more of the same from the previous day – Loeb was fast, but Hirvonen always had the edge. Once again Dani Sordo was best of the rest, but Jari-Matti Latvala was breathing down his neck in fourth. Even a misted windscreen wasn’t putting off Marcus Gronholm – he was 5th fastest, but after his issues on Friday he is 14 minutes down on Hirvonen so has nothing to lose by pushing as hard as he can.

He continued to improve in the next stage – Sagen, his favourite stage in the world – so much so that he named his restaurant after it. He was just a fraction down on stage winner Loeb, who clawed back most of the time he lost to Hirvonen in the previous stage.

“On the splits I was similar Loeb at the start but maybe then I was too nervous and the times were not there. But okay, this was the best stage for me so far.”

The next stage caused drama for Sordo – he clipped a snow bank flat out in 6th gear and spun, but somehow he avoided either getting stuck in it or driving into a nearby tree and instead finished pointing in the right direction and losing only around 15 seconds.

“We were going so fast in sixth when we hit the bank, then there was snow everywhere and I remember seeing trees and thinking it's finished now,” he explained. “Then, somehow, we were back in the middle of the road and we were alright. It’s incredible!”

Latvala was complaining about the setup of his Ford Foucs – in the last two stages he neither gained nor lost any time to Sordo overall despite the Spaniard’s close shave with the snow bank; “I really struggled with the car in this stage. I’m looking forward to trying a different set-up this afternoon.”

With the quick sprint around Hagfors done just before service, the teams regrouped and patched up their cars for the next set of stages ahead – which 5th placed Sebastien Ogier was rather glad of. He knocked his rear wing off in the day’s first stage so had rear downforce – making the car a bit twitchy at high speed.

Instead of being sensible and conserving their cars for later in the day – Hirvonen and Loeb went for broke and pushed for their lives through the re-run of Vargassen

The result was Hirvonen beating Loeb by three seconds – and the damage from pushing so hard had already hit home for the Frenchman.

“I think my tyres are destroyed, there’s so much movement on them,” said Loeb. “I’m not sure they’ll last but we’ll see. Mikko was very fast again and I couldn’t do much better.”

Like Friday, midday setup changes had worked a treat on Latvala’s Focus – he halved the gap to Sordo to just 10 seconds by winning the stage. Sordo was complaining of the same issues as his team-mate and was already seeming to have given up all hope of fending off the Flying Finn behind him.

“It's gravel, but very, very hard and it’s really difficult for the tyres,” he said. “The car is moving about all the time, and it's hard to get a feeling when you attack, but Jari-Matti is coming very fast…”

Stage 14 saw strategy come into play – whether to risk using the two spares now or fit them only for the following two stages. Hirvonen was 7.9 seconds faster than Loeb, so it was clear to see who had chosen what tactic.

“Everything is fine but the tyres are gone,” Hirvonen said hastily at the end of the stage. “I’ve got to go.”

However the happiest man after the re-run through Sagen was Gronholm – winning the stage had made his weekend, even if the rally overall has not been so kind to him.

“Not so bad, now the driving was nice,” he said. “It means a lot to win here. We came for this stage, and we won it. But the rally? – not so good.”

Loeb and Ogier paid the price for their gamble on the previous stage, and through Fredriksberg they lost yet more time with fresh front and destroyed rear tyres – causing their cars to slide excessively through the corners.

“It didn’t work out,” said Loeb. “We had good front tyres but the rears were destroyed and the car was undriveable. I couldn’t push, I just had to follow the road and couldn’t attack. The rear end wouldn’t follow the front of the car – even after I tried to wear the fronts deliberately. Having new tyres at the front and destroyed ones at the rear was worse than have four destroyed ones.”

Thanks to Marc Marti, Latvala was handed 3rd on a plate when Sordo’s co-driver forgot to take out a snow shield from his radiator – only remembering when Sordo asked him a few kilometres into the stage why his C4 was overheating.

“When we leave, Marc puts the part in place and puts something in the dashboard to tell me they are there, then we take them out before the stage,” said Sordo. “This time I see the engine temperature going up and I ask him: ‘Did you take them out?’ He said no, so I had to stop. How can this happen? We are a professional team and he is a professional co-driver, it’s a stupid mistake.”

With Hirvonen’s tyres now shot to pieces he was losing 3 seconds per kilometre – but luckily for him the final stage was only 2 kilometres long so overall his choice to swap tires early had worked. Everyone else was in the same boat however, as Martin Prokop won the stage in his Ford Fiesta S2000! The lack of power compared to the WRC machines clearly meant his tyres were in a much better state and thus beat the big boys through the slippery superspecial. Yet he seemed to give his stage win little notice and was more concerned about the battle in his own class; “I need to be the fastest [in class] on a normal stage. I didn’t do anything special in this stage; I just didn't make any mistakes.”

Hirvonen was pleased overall with his performance, but knew the fight for victory was far from over.

“Okay, it’s been a good day,” said Hirvonen. “Sixteen seconds is not much, but it’s more than we had in the morning. For sure there are long stages to go tomorrow and Seb will try hard, but we’ll see.”

Meanwhile Loeb was not so optimistic and still kicking himself for his mistakes earlier in the day – which could have proved to be the decisive moment of the rally.

“We made a stupid mistake today with the tyres; it was very much the wrong choice,” he said. “I put fresh tyres on the front with some completely destroyed tyres on the rear and I couldn’t use it. I lost a lot of time to Mikko. Can I catch him? I don't know, but it will be very difficult. Normally 16 seconds is possible but when you look at the times between us today you can see it's difficult to make any difference.”

Despite having the same problems as Loeb, Ogier was able to hang on to 5th place ahead of Stobart Ford duo Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson. Solberg was also somewhat ruing the stage conditions for his average day; “It’s okay but I don’t think I have one stud in my rear tyres now!”

Mads Ostberg dropped to 8th place – and Petter Solberg finally managed to pass all the PWRC and SWRC cars up to 9th, but had clearly had enough and just wanted the rally to end.

“Maybe I’m using the tyres too hard – I have to drive smarter and more carefully,” he said. “It sounds a bit boring but all I can say is I’ve tried and it is getting better.”

Despite Prokop’s heroics in the final stage of the day, PG Andersson was still relatively in control in the SWRC, but late in the day Janne Touhino in the other Fiesta made a charge for the lead – gaining 20 seconds on the Swede in stage 15 alone. He lies second, but has cut the gap to just 35 seconds.

Patrik Sandell‘s fourth place looked under threat from Eyvind Brynlidsen, who had already passed Bernardo Sousa in the morning loop of stages. However a puncture on Stage 13 meant Sandell was safe – for now. However with Brynildsen making up close to 20 seconds per stage on Sandell, the fight for fourth isn’t over just yet.

In the PWRC, Patrik Flodin started to rapildy pull away from fellow Subaru driver Anders Grondal for the lead, holding a commanding 1 minute and 20 second advantage by the day’s end. However, he is worried about the rest of the season ahead – as he doesn’t have a drive for any other events this year.

“I don't yet know whether I will get to drive the whole season, but I would really like to. I think that I have proved here in Sweden that I can beat the other drivers and even win the Championship.”

Meanwhile in the battle for the final podium spot – the momentum had swapped sides, and with a much better handling car Armindo Araujo was now on the offensive against Martin Semerad. The latter was slightly faster in the first two stages, but then Araujo blitzed the young Czech driver’s times in Stages 11 and 12 to take 3rd place. However both drivers were still complaining about the handling, with Araujo exclaiming that he was “fighting the car as well as Semerad.”

A spin for Semerad on worn tyres cost him more time, and finished the day 15 seconds behind Araujo.

Day Two Results

Pos  Driver              Car        Time/Gap
 1.  Mikko Hirvonen      Ford     2h14m48.3s
 2.  Sebastien Loeb      Citroen     + 16.6s
 3.  Jari-Matti Latvala  Ford        + 51.4s
 4.  Dani Sordo          Citroen   + 1m46.2s
 5.  Sebastien Ogier     Citroen   + 2m42.1s
 6.  Henning Solberg     Ford      + 3m47.9s
 7.  Matthew Wilson      Ford      + 5m44.1s
 8.  Mads Ostberg        Subaru    + 5m57.3s
 9.  Petter Solberg      Citroen   + 8m35.2s
10.  P-G Andersson       Skoda     + 8m48.1s
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Alasdair Lindsay is a Regular Contributor to TCF and can be found on twitter at @AlasdairLindsay
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