A thrilling second leg of the Acropolis Rally of Greece ended with Ford World Rally Team’s Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson lying second, just 10.2sec from the lead. They took on the squad’s bid for victory in this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship when team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila fell back with a puncture after swiping a bank.
The excitement was present throughout as Latvala’s Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car fought tooth and nail for the lead with Sébastien Loeb. The gap between the duo fell to just 1.0sec before the 27-year-old Finn hit trouble. Then, as torrential rain transformed the rocky gravel roads into a mudbath, Solberg attacked to win the final three speed tests and halve the Frenchman’s lead.
Today’s competition was based in the beautiful mountains of the Peloponnese peninsula, across the famous Corinth Canal from the rally base in Loutraki. Two identical loops of four special stages covering 149.56km were on offer, placing further strains on man and machine over the roughest roads of the weekend.
As summer finally showed its face, Solberg was fast but cautious through the morning, after the team changed the entire rear assembly of his Fiesta RS WRC last night. He claimed two second and two third fastest times to hold a comfortable third, but after Latvala’s problem he set about eating into Loeb’s 21.9sec lead.
Conditions became treacherous as several centimetres of mud caked the boulder-strewn roads and competitors likened conditions to driving on ice with slick tyres. The 37-year-old Norwegian revelled on the slippery roads and a hat-trick of wins set up an appetising finale tomorrow.
“I made some small detailed improvements to the car and it made a huge difference,” said Solberg. “After losing 14sec on the first day and 10sec yesterday, to lie just 10sec from the lead tonight isn’t so bad. It will be a big fight tomorrow and I’m feeling confident. The stages will suit me and I really want to win.
“I was careful in the rough sections this morning but pushed hard everywhere else. I took no risks but the balance of my driving was good. I raised the car’s settings this afternoon and it was so rough in places that it was more a matter of surviving than performing. I didn’t push in those sections. There was no point in trying to be a hero, it was better to be clever,” he added.
Latvala enjoyed the best of the morning in his battle for the lead after set-up changes improved his feeling with the Fiesta RS WRC. He started 6.5sec from top spot, and two consecutive stage wins reduced the gap to a single second. He returned to the mid-leg service in Loutraki just 2.2sec behind his rival.
“In the rough sections I drove at 95 per cent and when conditions were better I went flat out,” said Latvala. “It was important to know when to be careful and when to attack. I knew I could go faster but I also knew that if I attacked too much and hit one of the big rocks, it could have been game over.”
His hopes of a win ended in the opening afternoon stage, following a puncture when he hit a bank. He stopped to fit the spare wheel and lost more than 3min 30sec, dropping to fourth. The incident also broke the car’s rear right brake calliper and Latvala drove the final three tests with only three brakes, losing further time but comfortably retaining fourth.
“It happened in a medium speed left corner,” said Latvala. “It was uphill and I went into it too fast. I thought if I carried more speed into the corner, I would be faster in the uphill exit. But the car touched a bank and the tyre soon started to come off the rim. It eventually came off completely and the rocky road broke the wheel, so I had to stop to change it. It was disappointing after such a big fight for the lead. It has been a disappointing year, but I will keep fighting.”
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson said it was a day of mixed fortunes. “We’re disappointed Jari-Matti fell back after such a close battle for the lead, but Petter enjoyed a superb day. He fought back superbly after his time loss earlier in the rally and he’s in a position to challenge for victory. I hope that on the toughest rally of the year, we can carry the fight to the end,” he said.
News from other Ford teams
Adapta World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson climbed from eighth to fifth in their Fiesta RS WRC, despite concerns over a noisy driveshaft this morning. They are one place ahead of the similar Czech Ford National Team car of Martin Prokop and Zdenek Hrůza. As the attrition piled up, Yazeed Al Rahji and Michael Orr climbed to ninth in a Fiesta RRC. M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Ott Tänak and Kuldar Sikk recovered to 12th after yesterday’s problems. However, team-mates Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet retired when they suffered a damaged radiator and the high engine temperatures that followed caused the water pump to break. Elfyn Evans and Phil Pugh won the Ford Racing-supported FIA WRC Academy in a Fiesta R2, heading home Alastair Fisher and Daniel Barritt who retain an eight point lead in the championship.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally and is based just outside Loutraki. After restarting at 08.30, drivers tackle two identical loops of two tests, before the final Power Stage, which offers bonus points to the fastest three drivers. The five stages cover 65.55km with the finish back in Loutraki at 15.30.