During Stage 22 of Rally Sweden, Jari–Matti Latvala was on the brink of disaster. A punctured tyre, losing valuable seconds to the chasing Citroen of Mikko Hirvonen. Another 25 points were slipping through his fingers. But, unlike in Monte Carlo the month before, instead of throwing his car off the road, he composed himself, finished the stage, and held off his former team-mate to take victory by just under 17 seconds.
The opening stage looked ominous for Hirvonen. He had tweaked his setup before the morning loop began in an attempt to conserve tyres, but instead it caused him to lose confidence in his DS3, which in turn lost him 7.6 seconds through the 15 kilometres of Lesjofors. There was also a sign of things to come f0r Petter Solberg, as Mads Ostberg took the first of a number of seconds out of his fellow countryman during the final day, 1.7 seconds his reward in the opening test.
Behind the leading quartet was the battle between Evgeny Novikov and Sebastien Loeb. Loeb had looked a pale shadow of his usual self this weekend, making several mistakes and only a single shared stage win to his name in the previous two days. He was looking to cut the 44 second defecit to the young Russian, but instead it was Novikov who triumphed in the opening test, adding 4 seconds to his advantage
The trend up front continued on the following two stages, Latvala gaining further time on Hirvonen and Ostberg putting Solberg under the cosh. Citroen’s Flying Finn had all but given up on victory, instead focusing on avoiding becoming entangled in the battle taking place behind him on the leaderboard.
“It is just about keeping second position now,” said Hirvonen. “We did some changes to the car in the morning to see if we can help tyre wear a little bit, but now it’s quite difficult to drive and I don’t have any confidence, so I’d rather keep my place now.”
Loeb may have taken 8 seconds out of Novikov on Stage 20, but the latter finished the morning loop with over 40 seconds in hand to the Frenchman, and was not worried about losing fifth position. “The plan on the next two stages is to take it easy,” he explained. “Loeb does not worry me. Then on the Power Stage I will push to the maximum.”
The afternoon began with a rerun through Lesjofors, where Latvala had been so dominant at the start of the day. However, it quickly turned sour for Ford, almost derailing both drivers rallies completely. Both picked up punctures by hitting rocks, and Hirvonen reclaimed almost half a minute to reduce the gap to just 8.4 seconds. It was even worse for Solberg, who saw his chances of a podium finish vanish thanks to a stage winning performance by Mads Ostberg, now 25 seconds up on the overall leaderboard.
Latvala was determined not to jeopardise yet another potential win though, and blitzed the penultimate stage to go fastest of anyone, all but securing victory. Hirvonen was as pessismistic as before the puncture, seemingly uninterested in risking his second place for 7 extra points.
“I had to give up quite early on this stage. It was so slippery and I had a couple of big moments,” he said. “I did the first stage flat-out and destroyed my tyres, and okay Jari-Matti had a puncture, but then his tyres are much better for this stage. I can’t fight against him now.”
All that was left was the points paying power stage, and a number of drivers had driven conservatively leading up to the stage to save their tyres in the fight for the three bonus points on offer. Loeb now had a 45.8 second advantage over Henning Solberg, but was less optimistic about succeeding in the final stage.
“For me there is a 90 per cent chance of a puncture if you push [in the Power Stage],” he said. “I’ve tried to increase my lead over Henning as much as possible.”
Consequently there were a few raised eyebrows when the reigning world champion won the final test by 4.9 seconds. The conditions through the Hagfors stage were not as bad as he had predicted, and therefore did what he could to limit his loss to Latvala in the championship standings. Said Finn came third to pick up the last bonus point, with team-mate Solberg making up for the disappointment of losing third to Ostberg by taking two bonus points.
The result means Latvala takes 26 points away from the site of his first victory in the WRC four years ago, but he was relieved just to finish after the problems of Stage 22.
“I think I need to get to hospital to check my heart rate, it’s incredible how exciting this sport can get,” he said. “We had a good lead on Saturday night, but then it changed like a thunderstorm and we only had an eight-second lead at the end. I knew Mikko would push and we really had to go hard, but then we managed to take another four seconds on the penultimate stage, so we could breathe a little bit! To win here for the second time felt very special; the feeling now is just a big relief.”
Further down the leaderboard, WRC level debutants Patrik Sandell and Eyvind Brynildsen finished 8th and 10th respectively, and Sebastien Ogier beating a string of full WRC spec cars such as Thierry Neuville, Armindo Araujo and Nasser Al-Attiyah to 11th place, driving a Skoda Fabia S2000. He eventually came out on top of a battle with his Volkswagen Motorsport team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen, who had been pushing Ogier to the limit for much of the rally. The Norwegian driver eventually finished 14th overall.
It was the status quo in the final day of action in the SWRC class, with Per-Gunnar Andersson crusing to victory at the wheel of his works Proton Satria Neo. Three weeks prior he had been robbed of victory by an engine fire in Monte Carlo, but there were no such problems to stop him from collecting full points.
“We had no real problems from start to finish, although we made a few set-up changes to get the best out of the car,” he said. “Today we just looked after our advantage and concentrated on bringing our car safely to the finish.”
Monte winner Craig Breen picked up second, successfully holding off Pontus Tidemand by over a minute. Hayden Paddon was expected to be a frontrunner for the SWRC championship, but could only muster a disappointing 4th place after aiming to take points from championship leader Breen.
“Unfortunately we got stuck in a snowbank earler and that compromised our rally,” he said. “It’s not the result I wanted but at least we were there at the finish to score some points.”
Yazeed Al-Rhaji finished 5th, marking the debut of the new Ford Fiesta RRC. Maciej Oleksowicz had retired yesterday, but held on to 6th place ahead of a disappointed Alister McRae in 7th – and last – place.
|1.||3||Jari-Matti Latvala||Ford WRT||3:18:28.3|
|3.||15||Mads Ã˜stberg||Adapta Ford||+38.8|
|4.||4||Petter Solberg||Ford WRT||+1:14.3|
|5.||6||Evgeny Novikov||M-Sport Ford||+2:41.4|
|7.||10||Henning Solberg||Go Fast Ford||+3:49.5|
|8.||52||Patrik Sandell||Prodrive Mini||+5:08.9|
|9.||21||Martin Prokop||Czech Ford||+5:30.0|
|10.||64||Eyvind Brynildsen||Adapta Ford||+6:27.2|