David Schilke, WRC Correspondent
Try as they might the Ford boys cannot chase down Sebastien Loeb as his Citroen pushes on the with the Acropolis Rally of Greece overall lead. The third day of the event saw both Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg out-pace the Frenchmen but as conditions changed so did the top three's luck. Latvala showed strength in the morning before a puncture spelt the end of his chase after the leader.
We are still leading and that’s the most important thing.
“We will continue to fight tomorrow and see what will happen,” said Loeb. “Today has not been easy and there were times when the conditions were very difficult. But we are still leading and that’s the most important thing.”
“My situation is a bit more comfortable than yesterday evening, but obviously it’s not over yet. I had more difficult conditions than our rival, as two showers fell just as I set off. We were able to manage the situation and we will be starting the final leg in a good position. However, it would be good to hold off Petter!” added the Frenchman.
Solberg picked up the torch from his teammate in the afternoon just as the skies opened with heavy rain. Winning the final three stages the Norwegian was just short of ten seconds off Loeb's pace. Solberg will make his final push for the win tomorrow, "It will be a big fight tomorrow and I’m feeling confident. The stages will suit me and I really want to win."
“I was careful in the rough sections this morning but pushed hard everywhere else. I took no risks but the balance of my driving was good. I raised the car’s settings this afternoon and it was so rough in places that it was more a matter of surviving than performing. I didn’t push in those sections. There was no point in trying to be a hero, it was better to be clever," he added.
Meanwhile Citroen looks poised for a double as Mikko Hirvonen had taken over third since Latvala’s unfortunate setback when he hit an embankment on the first test of the afternoon. Latvala was forced to change his Fiesta's flat tire on the stage and then had to wrap up the day with only three working brake calipers. It was small consolation that the Finn stayed in the top five.
“It happened in a medium speed left corner,” said Latvala. “It was uphill and I went into it too fast. I thought if I carried more speed into the corner, I would be faster in the uphill exit. But the car touched a bank and the tyre soon started to come off the rim. It eventually came off completely and the rocky road broke the wheel, so I had to stop to change it. It was disappointing after such a big fight for the lead. It has been a disappointing year, but I will keep fighting.”
The top five is in fact rounded out by another Ford driver, Mads Østberg, who is no stranger this year to running at the top. However, this event has been challenging for the Norwegian as a mistake on Friday sent him tumbling down the order. It was a combination of good pace and a bit of luck that put him in another strong points position as Østberg had to pick off both Nasser Al-Attiyah and Martin Prokop while Evgeny Novikov retired with a shot water pump.
“Tomorrow we will be in quite a good start position which will make things a bit easier," commented Østberg. "We have always been early on the road this weekend which has made it difficult to set some good times, but hopefully tomorrow we can set some strong times – that is the plan.”
Al-Attiyah would later retire as well but Prokop is still in the fight in sixth followed by Citroen Junior driver Thierry Neuville in seventh. Impressively Sebastien Ogier closes out the top eight, as the Volkswagen driver's S2000 Skoda is running strong against the works prepared teams, even without the help of power steering! Yazeed Al-Rajhi end the day ninth in his Ford with Andreas Mikkelsen in the second Skoda run by the new Volkswagen team holding the final points paying position in tenth.
Solberg now has ten seconds to make on Loeb with five stages to go. When Loeb is out front it becomes very difficult to gain two seconds a stage on the reigning champion. Solberg has his work cut out for him, which probably suits him just fine as the Ford driver has admitted to favor chasing a goal than being the one chased. With the rest of the order pretty well set for tomorrow's short day the fight at the top and the winner of the Power stage will be the two best storyline to look after. An extra from a Power stage could spell the difference in this year's championship, making each one almost as important as its own event. The hard part will be getting the car to tomorrow's Power Stage in fighting condition after days of hard driving on some of the roughest roads in the world.