Mikko Hirvonen made the most of his first World Rally Championship overall lead today, pushing his Ford Focus RS WRC to stage wins on five of the day's nine stages and stretching his lead over Petter Solberg from 26 seconds to a gap of 32.2 seconds on the drying Australian gravel roads.
Hirvonen had inherited the top spot for the Ford factory team on Friday when his team leader, Marcus Gronholm, rolled his Focus on SS3, losing 11 minutes in uprighting the car, and dropping dead last in the standings. This thrust Hirvonen into the limelight, rather unexpectedly, and gave him the responsibility for the Ford team's progress in the manufacturers' championship fight.
The young Finn is wearing the leader's mantle rather comfortably, matching and beating the stage times set by Solberg in his Subaru Impreza; on the day's nine stages, Solberg was able to outdrive Hirvonen three times (on SS14, SS15 and SS17), and lost six seconds overall to the Finn.
Solberg still sees an opportunity to claim his first win of the year over his newfound rival, with over 100 km in six stages remaining tomorrow.
"It's been very close today and I've really enjoyed the fight," the Norwegian ace said. "Of course I really want to win, but I think Mikko wants to win too! It's a long day tomorrow and the stages are a bit more difficult so it will be very interesting to see what happens."
At the moment, Solberg is comfortably in second place, his works Subaru over two minutes ahead of OMV Peugeot's Manfred Stohl. The privateer team has had an up-and-down event, with Stohl running strongly, while his teammate Henning Solberg crashed his Peugeot heavily enough on yesterday's SS6 that he was not able to restart today.
Pons, whom Stohl overtook today, is in fourth place, desperately trying to score manufacturers' championship points for his Kronos Racing Citroen team, in the absence of team -- and championship -- leader Sebastien Loeb, but was unable to keep up with Stohl once the conditions improved today.
"Xavi will try anything," Stohl reckons. "But we are well prepared. Even though these 20 seconds don't mean anything when you make a slip, they still speak in our favour. But I don't just want to react to his attacks but rather go a high tempo myself tomorrow."
Gronholm, who started the day in 18th place after his off-road excursion on Friday, has been driving furiously in his quest to get back into a points-paying position, and he took four fastest stage times today -- the final superspecial tied with Hirvonen. He has now moved to seventh plac., With only 40 seconds to fifth-placed Marcos Ligato (Mitsubishi Lancer), he should be able to overtake Ligato and the sixth-place Jari Latvala (Subaru Impreza) in the first few stages on Sunday.
Stohl and Pons are clearly out of reach for the two-time champion -- he is over nine minutes adrift of Pons -- and unless two or more of the top four drivers drop out or lose enough time for Gronholm to catch up to them, Loeb will seal a third consecutive drivers' championship tomorrow in spite of sitting out the event with a shoulder injury.
The manufacturers' title, though, is something the Ford teammates are aggressively fighting for. With the current positions, Ford is set to gain 12 points to Kronos Racing's five, and the team could enter the penultimate rally of the season in New Zealand with a 15-point lead or better.
"I must think about manufacturers' points and not make any mistakes," Hirvonen confirmed. "If (Solberg) catches me tomorrow then I will not risk everything to stay ahead because the points are more important than the win. Tomorrow's stages will be tricky but I'm not worrying about them. I will sleep like a baby tonight!"