Stobart team-mates set for final day battle in Oz
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team-mates Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg are locked in a battle for points and pride after finishing Day Two of Repco Rally Australia with less than a second separating them. As Solberg's hopes of a top-five finish were dented early in the day by a crash, the pair are now fighting to gain maximum points for the team and to see who can come out on top over the high-speed Australian stages.
Day Two of the rally, round 10 of the FIA World Rally Championship, saw the 37 starting crews faced with 113.45kms of fast-flowing roads around Kyogle, well over 100kms inland from Rally HQ in Kingscliff. Heavy overnight rain raised the difficultly level on the loose gravel stages with wet wooden bridges and soft mud patches creating an added hazard for the crews.
With many of the leading drivers struggling to stay on the road in the slippery conditions caused by heavy overnight rain, Solberg was one of the first people to suffer at the hands of the Australian springtime weather.
Coming around a fast, left-hand corner on SS17 Bosch 1, the second stage of the day, the Norwegian slid off the road into a ditch and had his windscreen smashed by a post. Solberg and co-driver Cato Menkerud got straight back on the road despite sustaining damage to the bodywork of the Focus RS WRC. At the end of the stage they were forced to dispose of the shattered glass all together and carry on through the next two stages before the service break without a windscreen, slowing their progress.
The Stobart mechanics worked extremely hard during the midday service to repair what turned out to be superficial damage to Solberg's car and he was back out on the road in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the incident left him trailing the top-five position that he had been chasing at the start of the day, and significantly narrowed his lead over his team mate Wilson.
The young Brit made the most of the cleaner road conditions provided by his start position and worked well early in the day to stretch his lead over Federico Villagra in eighth place and steadily close the gap to Solberg.
Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin made some changes to their pacenotes during the morning loop to improve their accuracy while some set-up changes in service were also made to the Ford Focus RS WRC. The crew reaped the benefits on the second pass of the stages as they set about chasing their Stobart team-mate. A third place finish on SS23 Bosch II saw them move to within four seconds of Solberg with just the two final passes of the Super Special Stage in Murwillumbah remaining.
It was Wilson who came out on top in the two closing Super Special Stages of the day cutting Solberg's advantage going into Day Three to just 0.8 seconds and ensuring a real fight for position on the final day.
For the first time this season the final day of the rally will also be the longest. The crews will tackle ten stages totalling 124.48kms. The rally concludes with the longest stage of the event, the 22.41km Repco II, meaning that drivers' concentration will be at a premium right to the end, especially if the battle for position comes down to the wire.
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BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen will start first on the road on Day Three after a mixed day for the factory Ford team. The championship leader hit a mailbox on the opening stage of the day and tussled with Citroen's Sebastien Loeb for road position on the concluding stages tomorrow, with Loeb dropping time on the final full stage of the day to start behind the Finn tomorrow. But, amazingly, just 0.1 seconds separate the rally's top-three crews. Hirvonen's team mate Jari-Matti Latvala had been leading the rally overnight, but road sweeping duties slowed his progress in the morning and a puncture on SS23 left him trailing the leaders by over 40 seconds.
Citroen Junior's Sebastien Ogier also struggled to maintain the pace that he showed on Day One, an off in the morning pushed him back down the field to fifth. Meanwhile Munchi's Ford WRT's Federico Villagra is on course for another points finish as he remains in eighth place after a solid second day.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
"We've had another good day and we have spent most of the afternoon trying to get close to Henning. It's a shame what happened to him this morning but it let us get closer to him and it's good to be involved in a bit of a battle now. I feel like I have been driving much better today and the stages really suited me. We went stiffer on the springs in service and together with the drier roads it's meant that I've had a really good feeling with the car this afternoon which has helped improve my times. Tomorrow is the final day but, uncharacteristically, it's also the longest so it's going to be vital to stay focussed."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
"It's been a difficult day for us. Obviously we had our problems this morning when we slid off at high speed which was a big surprise to me. We just hit the mud and away it went. When we were sliding off I caught my thumb in the steering wheel and the swelling has been getting worse since then; the pain on the last few stages today was really bad. I'm trying to get a good setting on the car and tomorrow we will try with a set-up that we used at Rally Finland. I'm still in sixth place and if any of the guys in front of me make a mistake then I could get up into the top five which would be a good result."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"After two full days of high-speed action, the two Stobart crews are less than a second apart. Matthew has improved well today and it's great to see him matching the pace of Henning who has a lot of experience of fast gravel stages. It's fantastic to see them locked in a battle going into tomorrow but it will definitely be a tough day; over 120kms before returning to the main Service Park."