David C. Schilke, WRC correspondent
The fight for the 2011 World Rally Championship Drivers’ Championship was waged full force during the opening day of the Wales Rally GB. Heading into the season finale Sebastien Loeb held just eight points over Mikko Hirvonen. For Loeb, clinching the drivers’ title this weekend would mean his eighth FIA championship, setting a record greater than Michael Schumacher achieved in Formula 1. Meanwhile Hirvonen is still seeking his first ever WRC title, and has played runner-up to Loeb on two occasions including a similar situation in 2009 when the points standing was decided in Wales.
Clearly the Finn wants nothing else than to finally take the title away from Loeb. “It’s a shame we have to stop for the day and go to bed now. I’m ready for the fight,” commented Hirvonen after today’s three stages.
Conditions were as expected for the Welsh countryside in Autumn: cold, wet and blustery. A major blow was dealt to Loeb and his Citroen team when teammate Sebastien Ogier crashed out on the first stage of the day. Ogier was to play support for Loeb this weekend, doing anything it took to keep a gap back to Hirvonen. Instead the young Frenchman will rejoin tomorrow with little chance of having an impact on the fight.
Ogier explains his crash, “It happened after1.7-km. In a fairly quick right-hand curve I tried to tighten my line by going up onto a pavement. This destabilized the car and we hit a rock as we came out a bit wide. As is often the case in this type of situation, a few centimeters made all the difference. We hit with the left-hand rear wheel and the suspension broke,”
While Citroen was left wondering what happened to their strategy, Ford was quite pleased with the performance of their two drivers. Jari-Matti Latvala did exactly what the team required by taking the lead over Loeb. Hirvonen decided to settle for a more cautious pace to insure he would not end up a victim of the conditions on the slippery opening tarmac stages. With Loeb sandwiched in between on the first two stages it seemed Ford was gaining the advantage.
Yet the rally did not really start until stage 3, called Clocaenog, there conditions were more favorable for gravel tires and both Loeb and Hirvonen launched into the stage. Split times showed Hirvonen was faster but it was not certain if he could make up his three second deficit to Loeb. Crossing the line Hirvonen earned the stage win with a time of 9:14.1, only 2.3 seconds faster than Loeb. The Frenchman took the lead, but now has a mere 0.7 second gap to his rival. Latvala dropped to third as the title contenders sailed off into a fight that could very well last until the final stage this Sunday.
“It’s really very very muddy. The grip changed in every corner,” said Loeb after the stage. “We’ve taken the lead, and that’s great even if the gaps are tiny. Above all, we had to make sure we didn’t damage the car as the evening service probably wouldn’t have allowed us to carry out the necessary repairs. We’ve made a good start to the rally. We’ll have to continue in the same vein tomorrow morning.”
Petter Solberg wrapped up the first day in fourth, despite a close call on the slick roads. Kris Meeke is at home this weekend and his confidence showed in yesterday’s shakedown. The MINI driver closes the day in fifth, just ahead of his teammate Dani Sordo.
The second leg of the rally starts early tomorrow at 07:33 local time. Eight stages await the drivers with plenty of mud, cold weather and jumps to keep them holding their breath until the end. Tactics will enter into tomorrow’s stages has Loeb and Hirvonen balance pace with caution and more importantly, seeing who will get stuck being first out on the road Saturday. Loeb has won the first battle, but the way has just begun.