09 Feb 08
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team continued to dominate the Swedish Rally today to maintain first and second positions with one day remaining. Jari-Matti Latvala retained the lead in his Focus RS World Rally Car, 49.8sec ahead of team-mate Mikko Hirvonen. If 22-year-old Latvala can hold the lead over the remaining 97km he will become the youngest driver ever to win a WRC rally.
If Friday’s leg displayed few of the hallmarks of a traditional Swedish Rally in the midst of a Scandinavian winter, then Saturday resembled the championship's only pure-winter event even less. Temperatures climbed to an unseasonably mild 5║C and the speed tests close to the town of Hagfors were pure gravel during this afternoon's second pass, rather than the traditional ice and snow. Drivers were scheduled to tackle two identical loops of three special stages, covering 120.88km. But the roads were in such poor condition after the studded tyres ripped into the surface on the first run that organisers cancelled the second pass through the 14km Horssjon test.
"I drove hard but eased off in the difficult sections,” said Latvala. “I watched Mikko's split times and matched my pace accordingly. The conditions were incredible, with so much slush and water on the ground and I've never driven on studded winter tyres when there is no ice. It's getting exciting, but I don't want to get too excited yet. I tried to stay calm and focus on my concentration and I need to keep a cool head tomorrow when I expect the conditions to be similar."
Hirvonen tried to close the gap on Latvala, but as the day progressed the 27-year-old Finn's thoughts turned more towards the prospect of eight points in the drivers' championship for second place, especially with series leader Sebastien Loeb having retired. He took no risks and holds a comfortable 46.1sec advantage over third-placed Gigi Galli.
"My plan was to come to Sweden and win, but Jari-Matti has been more than fast and deserves to lead," he said. "I wanted to catch him but I didn't have a good feeling on the first two stages. I found a better rhythm as the day went on. I'm a little disappointed not to lead, but I'm happy with second. The gap is big on both sides of me so I'll drive carefully tomorrow to save my tyres. It won't be flat out.
"There was a huge amount of mud and water on the stages. Conditions were bad and temperatures are so high that it was difficult to use stages twice because the surface wasn't hard enough," he added.
Behind the two lead cars Italian Gigi Galli holds third on only his second rally with the Stobart team. He moved into a podium place after team-mate Henning Solberg punctured on the opening stage and dropped 20sec. The Norwegian then retired when he damaged the front of his car after hitting a barrier. “We are very pleased with the speed here,” said Galli. “After Henning went off things changed and we tried to just keep our position. Malcolm [Wilson] advised me to keep the pace under control and to keep the position. It is important for us to keep this position on the podium so there will be three Fords on the podium tomorrow. The car feels really good and is comfortable in the stages. It is good to come back with the speed on snow after being away for such a long break.”
Petter Solberg is fourth, despite finding his Subaru hard to drive after a shock absorber change: “We drove as fast as we could in the conditions - we couldn’t attack or push so we just drove our own rally,” said Solberg. “Okay, we’re in fourth, but I didn’t have a good feeling with the car today. We’ll make some more changes in service for tomorrow and see how we get on.”
Stobart's Matthew Wilson lies fifth while Norway's Andreas Mikkelsen is sixth. Dani Sordo climbed to seventh after winning two stages in the remaining Citroen C4 WRC while Toni Gardemeister is eighth for Suzuki, despite losing 3min 30sec after going off the road this morning. World Champion Sebastien Loeb restarted under Superally rules after retiring yesterday. He won two stages before retiring on a liaison section this afternoon with engine problems.
Sunday’s final day is also based around Hagfors. After leaving Karlstad at 06.20, drivers face two identical loops of three stages to the south and east of Hagfors covering 97.22km, with another remote service zone in the town between the laps. They return to Karlstad for the finish ceremony at 15.08.