Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC correspondent
It was another long day for the FIA World Rally Championship teams in Mexico and no one had a perfect day but Sebastien Loeb holds an edge of 36 seconds to his Citroen teammate Mikko Hirvonen. The two Ford drivers lay third and fourth with Jari-Matti Latvala having a 17.9 second over Petter Solberg.
Upon arriving back in Leon, Loeb gave a sigh of relief and said, “We were especially careful because there were a lot of rocks on the racing line. Some of them were put there deliberately. In spite of that, the day went well and we didn’t have any problems. There’s still a biggie to come tomorrow, with a 54 kilometre-long stage.”
Despite the overnight rain, it did not take long before the dust was again flying in the air due to the dry roads. On most WRC events, the final leg is usually easier but there is the longest stage for the drivers to contest in the morning. SS22 known as Guanajuatito is 54.30 km long and when it is over, the leaderboard could again change. However with the champion in the lead, unless a rock jumps out and bites him, Loeb should easily take his sixth victory in Mexico.
I drove 25km with the rubber in that condition and only lost 50sec.
Adding to the fact that they have they to deal with the high elevation, the rocks on the dry roads can cause punctures and any minor mistake can cost valuable time. It does not help when the spectators decide to toss rocks onto the road and as the rally cars went pass them.
The see-saw battle was between the two Finns who were teammates last year and even though Latvala took four stage wins, Hirvonen in his DS3 managed to stay in front of Latvala’s Fiesta RS. It did help that Latvala had a puncture tyre.
“I eased off a little after I found out that Jari had had problems. There was no point in trying to catch Seb,” said Hirvonen. “Yesterday, when I pushed really hard, he was still one or two seconds quicker than me. I need to build up more experience to be able to compete with him. It’s really a matter of confidence. The DS3 WRC is very comfortable to drive, I'm constantly surprised by its capacities.”
Sitting third, Latvala is over one minute and 15 seconds and it would be doubtful that he can overtake his fellow Finn for second place. The Finn was fourth yesterday before clawing his way to a possible podium finish today. The Ford Finn started the day off with the first stage win (SS13) and ended leg 2 by taking the fastest time in SS20. He added two more stage wins in today’s contest. On the second stage today, Latvala jumped ahead of Hirvonen into second but the next stage (SS15) he hit bedrock and broke the left front wheel. Latvala actually lost only 50 seconds as he continued with a flat tyre but it did drop him back to fourth temporary.
Latvala said, “It was in a left corner and maybe I took a different line to the first pass,” said Latvala. “I hit the rock hard and I immediately felt the wheel bend. It started to touch the suspension upright and the tyre delaminated. It proves what a great job Michelin has done with its tyres that I drove 25km with the rubber in that condition and only lost 50sec.”
With determination and focus, Latvala only needs to keep his own teammate at bay to secure the podium finish. “I must finish before I get any points so I have to concentrate fully on the long stage tomorrow. There’s no pressure and I don’t have to push to the maximum, but sometimes that’s not easy because you can lose concentration. I must keep focused because things can change right at the end, as we saw at the last round in Sweden when I nearly lost the rally close to the finish,” he said.
Solberg won SS18 today and the Norwegian said on his twitter, “It's been a good day in Mexico and we are looking forward to continue the battles tomorrow.”
Indeed it was a long day as Solberg explained, “Apart from some brake troubles this morning and a puncture when a nail pierced a tyre, everything was good. I changed the brake pads for a softer set and they were much better. I was happy with my speed, especially in the final set of stages when I had a good battle with Jari-Matti and we twice finished first and second.”
While Hirvonen kept second today, the Finn had a scare on the final stage and he explained the scary moment: “We came across one of the half-axles off Novikov’s car. It was fairly surprising and I couldn’t avoid it altogether. Fortunately, the DS3 WRC is pretty solid and we were able to continue without losing any time. But it just goes to show that we must be careful right to the end!”
The Russian Evgeny Novikov and navigator Denis Giraudet had a crash that left their Fiesta RS without a wheel and forced them to retire. They were running seventh when the accident happened.