Sebastien Loeb looks set for yet another asphalt win, after making light work of unpredictable conditions to maintain a steady lead over team-mate Dani Sordo, whose 2nd place is under severe threat from Petter Solberg heading into the final two stages of the rally tomorrow.
The biggest losers of the day however were Ford, who seemingly just can’t do anything right this weekend, after tyre choice on the opening loop ruined their day.
With isolated showers, fog and unpredictable temperatures nobody was certain as to which tyre compound to use – almost all of the Citroen drivers elected for softs while Ford went for hards – hoping the stages would stay dry and they’d gain huge chunks of time on the so far dominant French marque.
Rather inevitably, it rained. The Ford duo of Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala lost over a minute to Loeb on the opening stage alone, allowing Sebastien Ogier to pass them both in the standings and take 4th.
The roads were slowly starting to dry out again as the crews headed to Stage 6 – but it made no difference for Ford. Sordo finally ended Loeb’s run of stage wins, taking 3.5 seconds out of his team-mate, and after the cancellation of the following stage, all Ford could do was rue the decision that would likely cost them any hopes of a podium finish.
“With the information we had from our weather service and our safety crew, hard tyres were the only option,” said Latvala. “Until I reached the start of the first test the roads were dry, then conditions became damp and I knew it would be difficult in the stage. I made the damper settings softer before the next stage and the driving was easier as a result. It’s a pity the last test was cancelled because it was dry and hot and the roads would have been perfectly suited to our tyres.”
After midday service, Solberg was a man on a mission. He had dropped a large amount of time to 2nd placed Sordo, and quickly made inroads during Stage 8. He was over 13 seconds faster than the Spaniard – and took the stage win as a result. The Fords had stuck with hard tyres for the afternoon loop, which was the correct choice for the conditions – yet Hirvonen was unable to make any inroads into any of the lead Citroens, and Latvala suffered broken power steering.
Stage 9 was more of the same – Solberg going fastest again, and Loeb under a second behind despite going for soft tyres all round. He rounded off the second day with a final stage win, taking another 5 seconds out of Sordo and setting up an intriguing battle for second place tomorrow.
“Everything is perfect,” said a confident Loeb. “The tyre was not the right choice, but it was the safe choice for me this afternoon. It made sense to do this. The tyre worked well, it was moving about and that changed the handling of the car a little, but it was okay, I could adapt to it.”
Meanwhile Thierry Neuville has taken a commanding lead in the JWRC class, after overnight leader Mathieu Arzeno had a chaotic day.
Neuville took the lead on the opening stage – and then Arzeno made the Belgian’s task much easier by picking up a puncture on the following test, only to smash into a concrete wall two stages latter and being forced into retirement.
“I made a good start and I think Arzeno felt the pressure after that,” said Neuville. “I don't feel any pressure – I just need to keep my lead and avoid any mistakes. Winning tomorrow would be very important for me after not scoring on the first two rounds.”
Hans Weijs Jr. inherited 2nd place as a result – despite co-driver Bjorn Degandt losing his voice early in the day, forcing Weijs to run many of the stages without pacenotes.
Yeray Lemes continued his consistent run in the final podium place, Alessandro Broccoli made the most of others misfortunes to leap up to 4th place – ahead of Kevin Abbring, whose streak of bad luck never seems to end – this time retiring from the final stage due to alternator failure. He will have to start from 8th place tomorrow morning, and will be sure to push like crazy to make up as many points to Aaron Burkart in the championship as possible.
Local driver Todor Slavov had high hopes in only his second WRC event – but a puncture followed by brake troubles meant he was unable to progress any further than fifth place.
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