Ford World Rally Team’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila delivered a performance as smooth as the Spanish asphalt as they climbed to second in Rally de España today.
An accomplished sealed surface display gave them the advantage in the battle for third place in the final FIA World Rally Championship standings with just one day of the 2012 season remaining.
The Finns powered their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car to victory in the opening speed test of the second leg of this 13th and final round of the series.
Team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson moved up from 41st to 15th in their Fiesta RS WRC following their retirement in the opening leg.
After yesterday’s gruelling loose surface speed tests, the team’s mechanics last night transformed the cars of Latvala and Solberg from gravel specification to asphalt trim for the final two days of competition.
The drivers tackled two identical loops of three wide, sweeping, circuit-like special stages north-west of the Costa Daurada coastal resort of Salou.
The torrential rain that caused an enormous rate of attrition yesterday had passed and while the roads remained damp initially, pleasant sunshine ensured they were dry for the second pass.
Latvala opted for Michelin’s soft compound tyres this morning and started superbly by winning the opening test by seven seconds. The 27-year-old Finn was second in the next two stages to return to Salou for the mid-leg service in second.
“Before this rally I tested in damp conditions and the work we did there gave me confidence in the car set-up here,” he said. “The roads in the first stage were damp like at the test, so I knew that I could attack and be comfortable.”
With hard compound rubber fitted for the afternoon, Latvala stretched his advantage over those behind him and completed the day 47.1sec ahead of fellow countryman Mikko Hirvonen.
With overnight leader Mads Østberg dropping time after going off the road, Latvala is ahead of the Norwegian in the battle for third in the drivers’ standings.
However, the situation is so close that the outcome may only be decided in tomorrow’s Power Stage, where bonus points are on offer to the fastest drivers.
“I made no mistakes and our tyre choices were perfect,” said Latvala. “But my choice of set-up this afternoon was too soft and I couldn’t get the best out of myself.
The roads were 80 per cent dry and although there were damp patches, they weren’t frequent enough to make any difference.
“Tomorrow I must defend, because I’m hungry for third in the championship. I can’t risk that to try to catch Loeb, I have to balance my priorities.
If more rain comes then conditions could again become unstable. That could have an effect, as we saw yesterday,” he added.
The 25-minute time penalty incurred by retirement, meant 37-year-old Solberg had no chance of a points-paying top 10 finish. The Norwegian focused on a clean run and after climbing to 24th by the mid-leg service, he moved up a further nine places during the afternoon.
“I just drove to take the car to the finish because I lost too much time yesterday to challenge for a top 10 place,” admitted Solberg. “Conditions were muddy this morning but the roads were cleaner this afternoon.
Tomorrow the Power Stage is my goal – I will try to take a final win of the season there.”
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson said: “Jari-Matti made a great start through an extremely difficult stage. He wasn’t able to maintain the same pace in comparison to Loeb, but he sits in a comfortable second.
We expect the weather to turn bad again tomorrow and if that proves to be the case then we should expect the unexpected.”
Ford World Rally Team