Schilke, WRC Correspondent
Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena continued to hold a slight edge over their Citroen teammates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. The two teams had another day where they pushed one another, but at the same time being careful to not make a major error. The gap between the two team cars did widen a bit on the second day of the FIA World Rally Championship’s Rally New Zealand.
The WRC teams were contesting the 143+ Kilometer route on the second day of the seventh round on this year’s calendar. The fast gravel stages north of Auckland took them along North Island with the sun shining along with warmer temperatures during the winter season in New Zealand. That caused the roads to be dry in the morning stages, and then came a light rain prior to the penultimate stage.
The final day looks like it will be exciting!
Loeb took two stage wins today, but it was the final SS15 today where Hirvonen earned his stage win and closed the gap to 6.4 seconds. “We’ve had a good battle with Mikko today,” Loeb said. "It was difficult this afternoon, it was very slippery because there was some rain but we were driving on hard tyres. But we managed to stay on the road and maintain a comfortable lead over Petter Solberg. The final day looks like it will be exciting!”
Hirvonen smiled as he said, “What a great battle today! It’s fantastic to be able to push hard on such beautiful roads in a fast and reliable car. Once again, we are perfectly placed to secure a one-two for Citroën. That would be the perfect outcome.”
It was apparent that Citroen’s Finn really liked the Girls High School stage as he closed the gap on the Frenchman not once but twice. “This stage is among my two or three favourites. I pushed without making any mistakes; I don’t think I could have gone any quicker. I’m really enjoying scrapping with Seb. We are having a lot of fun on these fantastic stages,” he said.
Both Ford factory team drivers did not fare as well as expected yesterday, but both came out flying for the points, and in Petter Solberg’s case, placing his and co-driver Chris Patterson's Fiesta RS into a podium position. With two stage wins, the Norwegian is now third overall.
“We set good stage times throughout the day without any crazy attacking,” said Solberg. “I simply kept a steady pace to stay in touch with those in front, because there was nothing to win and plenty to lose. The roads were more slippery and muddy than we expected this afternoon, and drier than we anticipated this morning,” said the Norwegian.
Falling down a notch to fourth was M-Sport Ford’s Russian driver. Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet are 29.2 seconds off the overall time of Solberg and ahead of Ott Tänak and co-driver Kuldar Sikk by 21.3 seconds. The battle will continue tomorrow.
“We have had a good day, but and I haven’t been pushing 100 per cent. I took it a little steadier over the morning loop – which is where Petter [Solberg] passed me – but I am confident that I could have pushed a lot harder in some of those stages,” admitted Novikov.
Tänak commented, “We have had a good day and set some good times. For us, this event is all about making it to the end so it is good to see that our times are still there without being totally flat out and on the limit.”
Behind the two Ford cars is Citroen’s Qatar WRT with pilot Thierry Neuville and his navigator Nicolas Gilsoul. The duo made up ground and are now in sixth place overall. : “I set some good times, like my second place on SS10. I was also a bit disappointed by some of my times when I thought I had driven well,” said Neuville.
While Citroen allowed their two top drivers to do battle today, it is doubtful that they will push one another on the final day. The real battle will is between the Ford teams for the final podium position.
However , Neuville has the pressure of the Prodrive-prepared MINI John Cooper Works team with Dani Sordo and his co-driver Carlos Del Barrio just 18 seconds adrift of taking sixth place. "Today was better than yesterday, but this morning the stages were new and I didn't get a good feeling for them. This afternoon was much better and I was able to fight a little more so I am a little more happy. On the last stage I think I lost maybe four or five seconds when I was blinded by the low sun so it could have been even better. The car is running really really well and tomorrow I will push. I have soft Michelin tyres so we will see what we can do,” said a positive Sordo.
Jari-Matti Latvala made up ground today, and he and Miikka Anttila moved from ninth overall to eighth with two stage wins today. Knowing that his pace will not move him up further -- someone would have to drop down or out of the event on the final day – the Finn is more than happy to test different set-ups on his Fiesta RS.
“It’s difficult to see how I can move higher with big time gaps to those ahead,” said Latvala. “I wasn’t fighting with anyone, but concentrating more on the car’s set-up. Yesterday I didn’t have a perfect feeling with the car but we made a few set-up changes overnight and some more today. The feeling is coming back and I’m happy with the improvements.”
Tomorrow’s route may end up being quite challenging as heavy rain is expected. The short final leg will be a bit outside of Auckland and will include gravel and asphalt roads. The drivers will end their challenge at the waterfront in Auckland.