01 Dec 07
The shortest day of the competition, kilometre wise, was not the easiest day of competition, weather wise. The day called for more showers mixed in with some fog and, at times, sunny conditions. The top drivers would have to pay close attention to every kilometre to ensure that they reached the end in one piece.
The two most cautious of the group were Marcus Gronholm and Sebastien Loeb. If either made a mistake, the driver's championship would hinge on the outcome, so both drivers approached today's test with a mentality to play it safe and first finish.
The day started off with a surprise at the top of the leaderboard in the form of Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala had been quick on day one, but after suffering a penalty of 10 minutes for the final stage of the day, most expected the Stobart driver to not be in contention for stage honours and focus on getting his Ford Focus RS to the end for Stobart manufacturers' points. Latvala however came out swinging, taking the opening stage win by 4.4 seconds over Gronholm.
Latvala was up to 13th overall, but still had a lot of time to make up to try to get back in the top 10 overall. Loeb followed in step, quickly chased by Mikko Hirvonen. Petter Solberg found the conditions as tricky as yesterday, spinning his Subaru Impreza on the first stage of the day, but recovering quickly to retain his fourth overall position. The top three of the day remained unchanged, but a battle began to brew down the order. Subaru's Chris Atkinson used his seventh place finish to move ahead of Stobart's Matthew Wilson for sixth overall by two seconds.
It was Latvala again at the end of SS8, this time leading Hirvonen to the end of the test by three seconds. Gronholm remained in the stage time top three by tying his BP-Ford team-mate for second on the test. Loeb had taken his foot a bit off the gas, making sure that he saw the end through the tricky conditions, completing the stage fifth. The top of the order remained the same, though,despite the jostling for position on stage. Atkinson took another 2.2 seconds out of Wilson by stage's end to increase his lead in sixth to 4.2 seconds overall.
Latvala piloted his Ford Focus RS to a clean sweep of the morning's stages, taking the win by 2.6 seconds over Hirvonen. Gronholm was third, 1.4 seconds back as he began putting more distance between he and Loeb. Loeb wasn't going anywhere though, taking fifth on the stage over eight seconds off the pace. The major battle of the top 10 was still between Atkinson and Wilson, with the latter clawing back 1.1 seconds on the stage to close the gap to sixth down to 3.1 seconds. Latvala's stage wins did their own clawing as the Stobart driver was now twelfth behind Mads Ostberg.
The midday service did Wilson a lot of good as the young Stobart driver flew out of the gates to a ninth place finish, 2.8 seconds ahead of Atkinson in his Impreza. Atkinson was still sixth overall after the stage, but by a slim 0.3 second margin. Latvala continued to own the top stage position taking another stage win over Gronholm and Hirvonen, respectively. Hirvonen remained the leader of the rally though, with a comfortable 32.2 second lead over Gronholm. Loeb was a further 38.2 seconds behind Gronholm in third overall, but over a minute ahead of Petter Solberg in fourth overall.
Atkinson did not take the Wilson surge lightly as he added another 1.6 seconds to his lead to extend his hold to 1.9 seconds overall with just two stages to go. Latvala continued to steam roll the competition, this time Gronholm getting the closest anyone has gotten to Latvala all day, 0.9 seconds shy of the win. While all the other top drivers, not named Atkinson or Wilson, were comfortable in their position a battle for 10th overall had begun with Ostberg overtaking Jan Kopecky just in front of the resurgent Latvala in 12th. Ostberg had moved in front of Kopecky by a mere 2.7 seconds, but both had lost considerable ground to the Stobart ace at the top of the stage times. While the fighting duo had over a minute gap in reserve to 12th overall, Latvala was taking out large chunks at a time with each win.
With his sixth straight stage win, Latvala completed the sweep of the day's special stages in dominating fashion. The Finn completed the test over six seconds quicker than his nearest rival, Hirvonen, and continued to close in on 10th overall, Kopecky. The gap to the Skoda driver was now down to 40.7 seconds overall. Atkinson continued to pull out a lead over Wilson, increasing his cushion to seven seconds even. Gronholm had a minor issue with his car on the stage as he had problems getting grip in the front end of his Ford Focus RS. Gronholm felt confident that he would make it to and through the super special stage in Cardiff, though despite his trouble.
Gronholm held true to his word, and did one better by taking the stage win in the Millennium Dome. Gronholm took the win to the applause of a packed stadium delighted to see the former world rally champion give it his all one last time. Petter Solberg was third on the stage, but clearly one of the fan favourites, as the Subaru driver crossed the line and immediately spun his car around before getting out and waving to the crowd. Atkinson took advantage of the stage to make his lead an even 10 seconds over Latvala for sixth overall.
Gronholm's win didn't change the overall standings, though, with Hirvonen retaining first place 35.5 seconds ahead of Gronholm. Loeb is still third overall a further 39.5 seconds back. Petter Solberg is fourth over one minute and 11 seconds behind the current world rally champion. Sordo is fifth overall, 30.6 seconds behind Solberg. The battle for sixth is currently in Atkinson's favour by 10 seconds over Wilson. The final points paying position on the rally is held by Manfred Stohl, in eighth, who is 51 seconds behind the battle of Atkinson and Wilson.
Despite being the shortest day of the rally (only four stages), day three is the second longest in length. The conditions should continue to play havoc as the field tries to find its way to the finish, and a world rally champion is crowned.