Atkinson on track for fifth podium as he charges through the field
Chris Atkinson and co-driver Stephane Prevot have finished the second and longest day of Rally Finland by decisively snatching third position in the final stage of the day after a very strong performance punctuated by a raft of top three stage times. Petter Solberg and Phil Mills also had a positive day to consolidate sixth, feeling more comfortable with their Impreza WRC2008.
The second day of competition in Finland got off to a crisp start beneath clear skies, in contrast to the rain that yesterday brought. Just as the weather lifted, so too did the fortunes of the Subaru World Rally Team as both crews demonstrated improved pace and consistency. The pairing of Atkinson and Prevot wasted no time in claiming a string of impressive stage finishes as they rose four places through the standings.
Both Solberg and Atkinson showed increased confidence in the balance, performance and consistency of their Impreza WRC2008s, as had been evidenced in prior tests, and delivered solid drives to stay clear of the perils that put an end to the rallies of a number of other front-runners.
"We have clearly taken a step forward in our performance on these very fast and loose roads today and for Chris to have climbed to third is very impressive" said David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal. "We're learning all the time with this new car, and as we continue with our development programme, today has shown very clearly that results will follow."
From the outset, Atkinson and Prevot started carving through the overall standings. At the close of day one's competition, the gap from Atkinson to Ford's Henning Solberg was 48 seconds, but by the second midday service, after seven of the day's ten stages, he and Prevot had slashed this to a mere 2.9 seconds. Closing faster as the day progressed, the duo continued their fantastic progress to pass the elder Solberg and slot neatly into fourth place.
A sustained attack saw the duo take the afternoon's fight in convincing style to Citroen's Dani Sordo in third place, cutting the overnight gap of 36 seconds to just 6.1 after the penultimate stage. A stunning performance on the final test of the day saw the Australian snatch the position by one second, setting up a tooth-and-nail battle for podium spoils that will rage until the finish.
"It's been a good day, and if you look at the battle for third we've been right on the pace" said Chris Atkinson. "We had no problems, we're still pushing hard, and it's really good for us to make up this time and get into third. It's great especially when we were down in ninth at one point yesterday. It's good for the team that we're where we are and have been setting some good times. The two guys in front are going really well and are out on their own, but we'll keep pushing hard tomorrow to stay where we are. Dani is quick on the stages he knows and we seem to take some time on the new stages, so it won't be easy."
Solberg and Mills also had a solid day to retain their sixth position overall. Generally happier with the day's progress, they did however experienced a small clutch gremlin that caused a stall at the hairpin in the all-new stage 16. Finishing the day just behind his brother, sibling rivalry and overriding competitiveness will ensure Petter keeps pushing hard to the finish tomorrow.
"The car was working quite ok for a time today, but then I would seem to just lose the feeling" said Petter Solberg. "The balance was not so bad today, but there were times when I felt I just couldn't push. It's frustrating, but I'm just driving as fast as I can. I'm trying you know, definitely. The stages today were very loose, and tomorrow will be the same so we will just see."
Saturday was the longest of the rally at 168.25km comprised of ten stages to the north and east of the Jyvaskyla service park. With just three of the total 21 stages remaining tomorrow, both SWRT entries have worked themselves into good positions to be on target to claim a solid haul of points.
The final day of Rally Finland is the shortest, consisting of only three stages which total 40.47 competitive kilometres. Headed to the north east of the Jyvaskyla service park, the three tests are no gentle wind-down however. They are stages into which crews do not want to go fighting for position, owing to the speed, ability to catch people out, and newness of the day's second stage. The rally concludes with the classic Ruuhimaki test, used every year since the 1970s and arguably the most spectacular of the weekend.