By David C. Schilke
Surprisingly, after eight challenging stages held today in the second leg for Rally Finland, the order of the top three has not changed. Sebastien Loeb still leads with his Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier tucked right behind. Finland’s best hope rests in Jari-Matti Latvala, who sits third in his Ford Fiesta.
The gaps are tight at the top, less than three seconds separates the trio heading into Saturday’s final leg. While the morning brought quick driving, the afternoon took a different tone as the driver’s focused more on tactics than making a break for it.
Having to sweep the roads all day meant Loeb had his work cut out for him, but the multiple champ preformed brilliantly and was still in the lead by the end of the morning set of stages. The afternoon was a different story, as the Frenchman suffered first on the road, allowing Ogier to have the lead by stage 9. Yet things got a bit more tricky on the day’s final test, when neither Citroen driver wanted to be in the lead, which would force them to run first on the road tomorrow.
We tried to do something to sow doubt in our rivals’ minds. It didn’t work, but it hasn’t really made our task a lot more difficult.
First Loeb checked in a bit late for the start of the stage, incurring a 10 second penalty. While it could have been a simple error it’s not common for a reigning champion to miss a simple checkpoint. Yet Ogier was not to be out done and with only one aim in mind, the younger driver deliberately slowed down on the stage to hand the lead back to Loeb. When it was all said and done, Loeb was ahead by 1.5 seconds.
“We tried to do something to sow doubt in our rivals’ minds,” explained Loeb. “It didn’t work, but it hasn’t really made our task a lot more difficult. We’ve still got a long leg to do. Since the start we’ve managed to match the pace of our rivals even though we’re first out on the road. I just hope that I won’t have to do even more sweeping tomorrow on the very dry stages.”
Ogier commented, “Everything’s still up for grabs. Since yesterday, the positions at the start haven’t had a big influence on the performances. Nobody’s managed to make the break. Tomorrow, I think we’re going to meet more difficult conditions. We’ll have to push like crazy. Everybody knows these stages. It’s going to be a ding-dong battle, and in my opinion Jari-Matti Latvala is in the best position.”
However, their internal bickering allowed an enemy to sneak up right behind them. As they purposely gained time Jari-Matti Latvala was chasing them down, not slowing down. The Finn shaved six seconds off the gap and sits a mere 1.1 seconds away from Ogier. While Latvala was already in good position to challenge tomorrow, it is now a foregone conclusion this has become a three-way fight for the lead.
"I have all the keys in my hand. The Finnish fans want a victory and I want to give it to them, but it won't be easy," said Latvala.
"I need to be perfect and the car must be perfect, because it will be a big fight. I wanted a gap of no more than 10sec to the leader so the margin I have is ideal. I'm not a massive fan of tactics like this but it was exciting tonight and the team did a great job, for which I thank them. I know tomorrow's stages well and I'm so much looking forward to what I hope will be a great day," added the Finn.
About half a minute off the leader’s pace is fourth placed Petter Solberg. The privateer Citroen driver could still earn a podium if the battle up front becomes to heated. Yet for now fourth is probably the best Solberg could do considering the amount of tire wear his car has suffered in the first two days. Tomorrow will be about keeping a brisk and cautious pace while waiting for someone’s day to get ruined in the top three ahead of him.
“Today has been OK,” remarked Solberg. “Nothing special to report, I have been pushing all day. Did some changes to the set up at midday service, but that did not work out. Will continue to try tomorrow. Have to mention that the atmosphere out on the stages is really good, so many people!”
Equally isolated is Mads Ostberg in fifth. The M-Sport Stobart driver spun his Ford Fiesta but was able to keep his spot with little difficulty after local boy Jari Ketomaa retired from fourth place. Ostberg’s biggest threat tomorrow will come from Mikko Hirvonen, as the factory Ford driver tears up the field after a first day incident. Hirvonen was so set to make up for the bad luck on Thursday that he won five of the day’s stages on a charge that saw him lose a full minute of time. In all the Finn moved up the order from 36th to 6th in just eight stages. With 11 testes planned tomorrow perhaps even Solberg will become a target.
"Today's stages were probably the easiest of the three legs and I'm pleased with my speed," said Hirvonen. "I can't catch the top three drivers on pace alone, but I would like to catch Mads Østberg for fifth. I decided not to think about yesterday. It happened, and today I just wanted to drive as fast as I could and see how high I could climb."
The new MINI World Rally Championship Team drivers are engaged in their own battle over 7th. Dani Sordo holds the position but after a few troubles today, teammate Kris Meeks is less than 15 seconds away in eighth. The aim tomorrow is to get both cars home in the points as the team continues to develop their car.
“It was not bad, but we are waiting for a little bit more – not from the car but from me to be a little bit faster and more confident,” admitted Sordo. “It is always very difficult here in Finland, and then we had all the new stages today. We also made a mistake on the last stage and had a spin after missing the braking on the first junction. However, I had a lot of fun and did well in stage ten where two cars start side by side and so have a race to the finish.”
There was a lot of action with little result today, but for tomorrow there will be no tactics and no chance to fall behind for road postion. From the first stage and onwards, tomorrow will be an all out fight for the top three. Two against one would indicate a French driver will most likely claim victory tomorrow but history tells a different story, home field advantage has a way to even the odds. For this fight, even the fat lady will be holding her breath at the end.
Rally Finland Day 2 Results