Schilke, WRC correspondent
Sebastien Loeb and his longtime co-driver Daniel Elena appear to be in command of earning yet another Rally Argentina victory. Despite their early drop on the leaderboard in this weekend’s FIA World Rally Championship event, the Frenchman closed out the first leg yesterday with the overall lead. His closest challenger by just one-tenth of a second at the end of the first leg was his own teammate.
Today, Loeb started off first on the road and took the first (SS7) stage win, and after an early battle this morning in the first trio of stages, Loeb went fast enough to be competitive while still protecting his lead. “We had a good day. This afternoon, we took as few risks as possible, especially in the twisty sections. Drove the car my way, Mikko [Hirvonen] drove his car his way and we ended up with more or less the same times.”
I really enjoyed this morning.
The Frenchman’s Citroen teammate, Mikko Hirvonen sits second after taking two stage wins today, but the gap between the Finn and the leader is over 40.8 seconds. The two DS3 drivers put on quite a show in the first loop of today’s stages. Loeb and Hirvonen were giving the Argentinean fans a show; especially on the Intiyaco/Golpe de Aqua stage with the flat-out sections. Loeb was setting the fastest time but toward the end the Frenchman nearly went off the road, handing the Finn the third stage win by a mere three-tenths of a second.
“I pushed very hard this morning, but Mikko hit back,” Loeb said. “We very nearly went off on SS9: a stone that I hadn’t noticed in reconnaissance lifted the car off the ground as we headed into a corner. There was a large rock on the outer part of the road which kept us from going off. We were lucky.”
Hirvonen had a blast also, and he said “I really enjoyed this morning. I was really looking forward to the Intiyaco/Golpe de Agua stage, which in my opinion is the best stage on Rally Argentina and perhaps the best in the World Championship. If only it was like that all the time! I felt very good in the DS3 WRC and was able to push with no holds barred.”
In the afternoon second pass of the trio of stages, both drivers were given the team orders to take it easier as Yves Matton, Citroen Racing Team Principal commented, “I spoke to both the crews and they agreed that it was the best solution. Sebastien Loeb almost went off this morning and we can’t afford to throw away a possible one-two, which would obviously be a great result for both World Championships. It’s a bit hard on Mikko after what happened at Rally Portugal, but I hope he’ll be able to stand on the top step of the podium again with us very soon.”
Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will also run a safe pace tomorrow to ensure a one-two finish for the Citroen works team. “We ended the day at a good pace and where we want to be,” said Hirvonen. “In situations like these, you can’t ease off too much, otherwise you run the risk of having an undriveable car. The team is in the best possible position, especially as the third-placed driver is now nearly two minutes behind. We’ll have to keep it up tomorrow!”
Ford sub driver Dani Sordo and his co-driver Carlos del Barrio kept the third overall spot, and unless one of the DS3 drivers makes an error, Sordo should finish his first WRC event on the podium. On his morning runs, Sordo admitted, “I made no mistakes but I wasn’t so happy with my times. I didn’t have full confidence in my pace notes, but they were better in the second pass. I had a front left puncture in the middle stage this afternoon and I only had one spare wheel. I couldn’t afford another puncture so I was more careful in the last stage.”
Sordo was smiling after the afternoon runs and said, “The roads were fun with jumps, fast corners and water splashes. I could have driven flat out, but even then it would be unlikely that I would close the gap to the drivers ahead. My goal is to keep this position. It would be better to finish third rather than take risks and go off the road.”
Mads Ostberg and Jonas Andersson hold fourth in their Adapta Ford Fiesta, and not far off the pace of Sordo. “We are just taking it steady now as Dani is too far ahead – we have nothing to gain and a lot to lose! Fourth place will be another great result for us and we need to make sure we make no silly mistakes on the final day,” said the Norwegian. “The gap to fifth is pretty big now so there isn’t too much pressure and I’ve had time to really enjoy the stages and show off to the spectators a little. It has been a really fun afternoon!”
Sitting fifth behind their teammates are the Czech duo of Martin Prokop and co-driver Zdenĕk Hrůza, and they too aim to retain a top five finish. “I am pushing as much as I can where I can, but it is a really tricky rally and you have to be so careful. Fifth place would be another fantastic result for us so tomorrow is all about keeping it on the road and getting to the end of the event,” said Prokop.
The two drivers for the future of the Volkswagen team continue to contest the 2012 season with the Skoda Fabia 2000s. Andreas Mikkelsen and his co-driver Ola Floene hold sixth place, and their teammates Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia retain seventh.
Landing the superspecial SS13 short test win in Carlos Paz of 166.54km was Citroen Junior driver Thierry Neuville. He and his co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul hold the eighth position and are positive as they head into the final day. “Petter Solberg is pushing to try and make up ground; my goal is to keep him behind us. We had to push hard to do that! At the same time, it is still possible to improve position. I think we can aim for 6th place overall.”
In an attempt to make up ground for the coveted points, Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson started today using the Rally 2 rule in 11th place. Setting fast times in his Fiesta RS, Solberg won the afternoon three stage wins and closed out the day in ninth for the Ford team. “This afternoon was perfect,” said the Norwegian. “The stages were fantastic and the Fiesta was so fast. My focus is to score as many points as I can so I didn’t take any risks. I would like to have more kilometres to chase the people ahead, but I only have one day remaining so I will do my best.”
There are six stages on the final leg tomorrow and it will not be an easy day for the WRC drivers as they will leave Carlos Paz and head into the Traslasierra mountains via the longest of the event: 65.74km! The final stage will be held in Copina for the bonus points Power Stage.