Dani Sordo and Sebastien Loeb were again untouchable on the second day of Rally Catalunya, with Sordo in the spotlight much of the day, as he defended the overnight lead against his senior teammate. The two Citroen works drivers claimed three of the six stage wins for the day, with Sebastien Ogier and Petter Solberg -- both also piloting Citroen C4s -- taking the other three to underscore the strength of the French marquee on tarmac events in the World Rally Championship.
Loeb finally slipped by Sordo on SS12 (La Llena), the final stage of the day, as Sordo slowed down to score a fifth-fastest stage time, at 3.2 seconds off the pace and by far his worst result of the day. Given that the young Spaniard won the first run through La Llena, it's quite reasonable to assume that Sordo gave the lead over to his five-time world champion teammate intentionally.
"Dani and I both know that the important thing is to stay on the road, but we are driving as we feel, and we feel comfortable," said Loeb. "This fight between us is enabling us to stay focused. In any case, it's practically impossible to drive a WRC any other way than quickly!"
Loeb now has a lead of 1.5 seconds over Sordo, but most importantly, Loeb's championship rival, Mikko Hirvonen, is a further 47 seconds behind Sordo, and in no position to challenge the two Citroen works drivers. Were the positions to hold until the end of the event, Loeb would make up four championship points on the Finn, closing the gap to a single point going into the season finale, the Rally of Great Britain.
"The situation as its stands is perfect for Citroen," said Sordo. "We mustn't forget, though, that there's still another full day of competition and six more stages to come, so nobody's entirely safe from an unpleasant surprise. We will need to keep our eye on the ball to the very end to make sure we conclude our run with a one-two finish."
The Ford contingent, on the other hand, has struggled with grip throughout both days of the event. Hirvonen was experiencing understeer, but decided not to make any setup changes, for the fear that the handling would get worse. As it was, he was faster than Solberg, but the gap to Sordo and Loeb was large enough to be near-impossible to make up with a suspension adjustment. Playing it safe, then, was the phrase of the day.
"I was closer to (Loeb and Sordo) than I was yesterday, but it wasn't quite enough to match them," Hirvonen recalled. "I can't find the last few seconds that I need so there is still some work to do to improve on asphalt. Like everyone else, I suffered from slight understeer in long second and third gear corners which meant I didn't have enough grip at the front. There are many different things that could cause it, but I didn't want to make a big change to the car's set-up to try to cure it in case it was a big step in the wrong direction. But I have to make sure there are no mistakes tomorrow."
Solberg, driving a privateer Citroen C4 for the first time in anger at Catalunya, is fourth, with a gap of 22.4 seconds to Hirvonen. Citroen's hope had been that Solberg might be able to outdrive the Finn and wedge himself into third, this reducing the Ford pilot's points haul further. But although the Norwegian veteran reduced the first-day gap by some three seconds today, including a stage win on the final stage, he looks unlikely to be able to catch Hirvonen on the road, even if the latter drives as conservatively tomorrow as he indicated.
Sebastien Ogier, in a Citroen junior team entry, was highly impressive on the day: the 25-year-old Frenchman scored two stage wins, and never finished worse than fifth on any stage. Not only that, he took three seconds off the gap to Solberg, and nearly kept place with Sordo as well, losing only some eight seconds on the day.
"That's a big satisfaction for us," said Ogier. "In the afternoon it was important to look after the tyres as there were high ambient temperatures, so we were quite careful in order to be sure of getting to the end of the day with no problems."
Ford's second works driver, Jari-Matti Latvala, could do no better than hold his sixth place -- and his deficit to Ogier ballooned from 13.8 seconds to just over a minute on the day. The young Finn is now more than two and a half minutes off the pace of the two leading Citroens.
The rest of the Ford contingent is even further back: the usually-competitive Stobart M-Sport drivers, Matthew Wilson, stand sixth and eighth, sandwiching Federico Villagra in another Ford. All three Focus drivers are well back, with Wilson just under six minutes behind Loeb, and Villagra and the elder Solberg straddling the seven-minute mark.
With most of the gaps relatively large, tomorrow's final day will be unlikely to see any major charges by the front-runners, who are keen to ensure their points hauls in advance of the season finale in Britain. However, Petter Solberg and Ogier may yet supply some fireworks in Catalunya tomorrow.