18 May 08
Just one 2.69km stage separates Sebastien Loeb from victory on Rally d’Italia, and a personal milestone of 40 WRC wins.
After a flawless performance on the rally’s penultimate stage, the Citroen C4 WRC driver heads to the short final speed test with a 12.9 second lead. Loeb said he had tried to match the pace of the two chasing Ford drivers throughout the 18.66km stage so he could afford to back off a little on the final test.
“Okay we still have one stage to go, but we can take it a bit easy now,” Loeb said after SS16. “We were watching the splits and could see we were equal with the two other crazy guys. I’m very happy to be leading.”
Mikko Hirvonen responded to the SS15 challenge of his BP-Ford team-mate by setting the fastest time and takes a 6.9sec time cushion into the final stage. “I saw from the splits that I couldn’t catch Loeb but Jari-Matti was very close so I still had a fight on my hands,” said Hirvonen. “I’m sure the fight will continue on the last one but I want to be second - at least.”
After the stage Latvala said that the chance to get two Fords on the podium had been too important to jeopardise by battling his team-mate. “I pushed hard in the previous one (SS15) because I had a good feeling - so I let myself go, but here I could see that Mikko was going really well." He said. “I didn’t want to take stupid risks. If I had gone off the road that’s would have been a bad thing.”
The battle for fourth between Gigi Galli and Dani Sordo appeared almost settled too, with Galli taking a 16sec advantage into the final test. “Considering the problems we had on the first day I’m very pleased,” Galli said. “It’s important to get some points for my team and stop the other getting them!”
The stage brought more dramatic developments in the J-WRC competition, which had featured a tense lead battle between Michal Kosciuszko and Martin Prokop over the first three stages. Sadly for Prokop, the fight came to an end 7km into SS16 when his Citroen C2 S1600 lost a wheel - dropping him almost 30 minutes.
With one stage to go Kosciusko’s lead over new second place man Alessandro Bettega stood at 4min 24.9sec.