WRC

Hirvonen headed for Rally Norway victory

Hirvonen headed for Rally Norway victory

Mikko Hirvonen showed his potential again on the second leg of Rally Norway, the third event in this year's World Rally Championship. The young Finn shone especially on the morning stages, growing the gap to his Ford Focus RS WRC teammate Marcus...

Mikko Hirvonen showed his potential again on the second leg of Rally Norway, the third event in this year's World Rally Championship. The young Finn shone especially on the morning stages, growing the gap to his Ford Focus RS WRC teammate Marcus Gronholm by seven seconds in three stages.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"That was a hard, hard day, but a good one," the 26-year-old Finn smiled. "There was so much snow and fog that I had zero visibility in places. I have been driving at 110 per cent all day and the snow banks have kept me on the road a few times. It feels great to be fighting with the 'big boys' and my pace notes were perfect."

The morning stages, Mountain, Lillehammer and Ringsaker, run in the mountains near the town of Lillehammer, were particularly challenging with continuing snowfall and roads none of the drivers were familiar with. Hirvonen was up to the challenge, though.

"It was so difficult," Hirvonen said. "It was snowing all the time and I couldn't see anything. There were blizzard conditions in places, with huge snowbanks and so much snow that sometimes it was coming over the bonnet and onto the windscreen. I don't think I've ever driven a stage like that!"

Neither had anyone else, though, nor could anyone match Hirvonen's pace. He won two of the first three stages, taking 6.9 seconds from Gronholm and and 27.1 seconds from Sebastien Loeb, who plowed into his first snowbank of the day on SS11.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Gronholm made back some ground in the afternoon, winning all three final stages of the leg and reducing the gap by three seconds, having found a set of tires to match the conditions. However, Hirvonen did not let him out of his sight, and at the end of the day the two Ford pilots are still separated by 19.3 seconds.

"I made the perfect stud choice for the tyres this afternoon and was able to take time back from Mikko," Gronholm explained. "But it wouldn't be clever for me to attack tomorrow. I want to win but it would be stupid to take risks when Ford is lying first and second. I also have to think of the drivers' championship and with Loeb out of the points, it makes sense for me to aim for second. But tomorrow will be hard because we have to tackle the three most difficult stages of the rally for a second time."

And Loeb? Snow is certainly not the favored surface for the three-time champion, and the 2007 season saw the number of snow events double, with Norway joining Sweden. In Sweden, he finished some 54 seconds behind Gronholm, and he had been pushing his Citroen C4 WRC very hard throughout this weekend in an attempt to keep pace with Hirvonen and Gronholm, hitting a snowbank on Friday already.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Today, first there was SS11, where he collected enough snow from a snowbank to block the engine air intakes, losing 15 seconds to Hirvonen. Then, on SS12, trying to make up time, he found another snowbank, and was unable to extricate himself without spectator assistance, at the cost of over eight minutes. And on SS13, for the third consecutive stage, he went off the road, twice this time, losing nine minutes.

"I was two minutes behind eighth place," Loeb summed up his SS13. "Since I had nothing to lose, I gave it everything, but I spun off."

Loeb finished the day in 18th place, nearly 18 minutes behind Hirvonen and ten minutes behind Xavier Pons, who holds down the final championship point in eighth place.

His young teammate, Spaniard Daniel Sordo, had done no better, driving off the road on the opening stage of the leg and having to rejoin through the SupeRally rules. He finished the day in an ignominious 38th place, behind numerous Group N Ford Fiestas and Suzuki Swifts.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
Feeling much more at home are the Solberg brothers: even if they grew up near Oslo, the Norwegian siblings are more than familiar with snow and the Norwegian terrain, having won the Norwegian Rally Championship six times between them (Petter in 1998, and Henning from 1999 to 2003).

Petter has driven his works Subaru Impreza cautiously to ensure a finish and avoid a result like he had in the Swedish Rally, where he ended up abandoning the rally after getting stuck in a ditch. Starting the day in fourth place, he made some time on his brother Henning in the morning even if the two Fords were running away, and was about a minute ahead of Henning and Gianluigi "Gigi" Galli at the mid-day service break.

"I thought there would be a chance that one of the guys in front of me would hit trouble because they were all setting a very fast pace," he explained. "Our strategy of taking it easy has worked."

He struggled on the 24.36-km Mountain stage, though, losing 90 seconds to the leaders and almost a minute to his brother. At the end of the leg, Henning was just 9.9 seconds behind in his Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus.

Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"I just didn't have any traction," the younger Solberg admitted. "It was very difficult. Since that stage we have had some traction problems. I struggled, particularly on the last two stages of the day. I've been fighting so hard to set some good times and we made it to the end of the leg and now we can try to solve this issue."

Henning, who finished the Swedish Rally in a strong fourth place, 28 seconds behind Hirvonen, has again impressed. He lost some time to younger brother Petter in the morning due to a bad tire choice, but then made it up in the afternoon, setting some very quick stage times in the process.

"I was not so happy this morning because I made a wrong tyre (stud) choice which lost me some time," explained Henning. "This afternoon I was pushing as hard as I could and we went off twice in stage 13. The conditions are so tricky, you can not see very well and the roads are full of snow."

Jari-Matti Latvala, in a second Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus, has improved yet from his Swedish showing, where he was threatening to score points until a mechanical failure finished his rally early. He lost time to mechanicals again yesterday, incurring a 90-second penalty for being late to a stage start after a service break.

Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Today, though, luck was on his side as he drove steadily and moved up in the standings from ninth in the morning to fifth at the end of the leg as his rivals made visits to snowbanks and ditches in the heavy snow.

"The first stage was one of the most difficult stages I have ever done," said the 20-year-old Finn. "It was very hard out there going flat out sliding over snow banks but we are still here and it has been fun. I was pushing as hard as I could in the final stages, I was collecting a lot of snow in the front of the car and sometimes found it hard to brake which made it so difficult."

Without his penalty, Latvala would be in the thick of the fight for third place, but then things could have gone otherwise as well in the white stuff, as the thick blanket of snow -- 20 cm or 8" at times -- made the roads exceedingly challenging.

"I'm just happy to get through today," Latvala admitted. "It's great to be back in the points, unlucky for some of the other guys but it just goes to show how tough this rally is."

Manfred Stohl, in am OMV Kronos Citroen Xsara, and Gigi Galli, driving an Aimont Racing Xsara, are neck-and-neck in a fight for sixth place, a minute behind Latvala but nearly two minutes in front of Pons. 10.6 seconds separate the two.

Gigi Galli and Giovanni Bernacchini.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"Our set-up is much too hard," Stohl grimaced. "If you drive normally here, you're nowhere. We had several close calls today. I gladly accept sixth place but it is only partly to my credit. In any case, we were lucky enough to stay on the road. As I know Gigi, he will give 110 percent on Sunday. Then I will have to decide whether to take this risk."

While there are only four stages on Sunday, it will be nothing as much as a cakewalk. With snow continuing to fall overnight, and three tough stages on the schedule -- Mountain 2, Elverum 2 and Ringsaker 2 -- there will be much at risk and many risks taken. Apart from the two Finns in Fords at the front, every other points-paying position is still under threat as the final day starts.

"It wouldn't be clever for me to attack tomorrow," Gronholm reflected. "I want to win but it would be stupid to take risks when Ford is lying first and second. I also have to think of the drivers' championship, and with Loeb out of the points, it makes sense for me to aim for second. But tomorrow will be hard because we have to tackle the three most difficult stages of the rally for a second time."

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