David C. Schilke, WRC correspondent
After eight more challenging stages Jari-Matti Latvala seems headed for his second Rally Sweden victory in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Finn tussled with fellow countryman Mikko Hirvonen for much of Friday before Latvala's Ford Fiesta was able to secure a solid gap over his Citroen rival. The second leg ran today saw these two trade fastest times but in the end Latvala managed to pull out a solid 23 second lead with four of the eight stage wins. Hirvonen took two stages for himself, but the pace was not enough to close in on his former teammate. With six stages to go on Sunday it has now become Latvala's rally to lose.
Latvala was all smiles after the day and said to WRC media, “It's good to have this lead but I really didn't extend it much today and most of all it was nice to have a good fight. It was just a really fun day driving the car. We made the right decisions with the tyres and no big mistakes. Really it was the second run of the Sagen stage that was decisive for us because that was the biggest advantage over Mikko Hirvonen that we had all day.”
This is only Hirvonen's second rally with Citroen and the Flying Finn is already vying for a rally win,“Obviously, I’m a bit disappointed that I haven’t managed to reduce the gap, because I would really like to win this rally for the third time running“ concluded Mikko. “However, I am particularly pleased with the feeling I am getting in the car, and that's very encouraging for the next few rallies. Under normal racing conditions, for sure, I won't be able to win the race. But you never know, something unexpected might happen. I‘ll keep putting Jari-Matti under pressure tomorrow.”
The only proper snow rally on the calendar has been a favorite of the works Ford team and this year is no exception. The team is poised for a double podium finish as Latvala leads and teammate Petter Solberg fights for third. This is only Solber's second time in the car and the Norwegian has settled into the rally with perfect form. On Friday "Hollywood" entered into a battle with Mads Østberg while in their home country, Norway. Today it seemed the fight would continue but trouble for Østberg on stage 17 helped Solberg stretch out the gap to over 11 seconds. Their challenge for the podium will continue to the final day.
"It's maybe the toughest rally for me to just jump in," said Solberg. "Tomorrow will be a hard day."
Rally Sweden has been a mixture of ups and downs for the points leader Sebastien Loeb. The Frenchman seemed to be poised for a podium yesterday until he was caught up in a snow bank for two minutes. A ten second penalty for last minute setup changes also did not help. With these troubles Loeb found himself 11th overall and a mission to get back into the points. The Citroen driver was able to leap into seventh today but then suffered a slew of problems, hindering his forward progress. Putting in the third fastest time on stage 16 helped lift Loeb into sixth overall. With a podium clear out of the way a top five finish will now be the aim for the champion.
"I won’t keep fond memories of today’s stages," admitted Loeb, "But we achieved what we set out to achieve despite spinning and picking up a puncture… The gap to fifth means that there is not much more I can hope to do at this rally. Bring on Rally Mexico!”
Evgeny Novikov is the man Loeb must chase down. The M-Sport Ford driver had a good day in the slick conditions but is over a minute behind the top four. Tomorrow the Ford driver may feel some pressure from Loeb, but if all goes smooth Novikov will match his top five finish from the Monte Carlo Rallye.