David C. Schilke, WRC correspondent
Sebastien Loeb still holds a strong lead over Jari-Matti Latvala in the second day of Rally de España, centered around the Salou region in Spain. On pure tarmac roads the Citroen driver earned two stage wins in the morning as he seeks to establish himself a firm points lead for the 2011 championship.
“We had a good run," explained Loeb. "The roads were clean in the first loop but a bit dirtier in the afternoon. We didn’t take any risks, as we didn’t want to lose everything. We had to drive cleanly and not clip the apexes. Second time through I preferred to use the dirtier parts of the road rather than cutting the corners.”
Only Latvala can threaten his victory tomorrow, and the Finn has made it his mission to do just that. With three stage wins today the Ford driver is trying his best to close the gap to Loeb. Yet time is running out for Latvala, with only six stages left and a time difference still close to half a minute.
It was a great feeling to have the seven-time world champion congratulate me for beating him on his favourite surface.
“That was the best day of my career on asphalt,” said Latvala. “My driving on this surface is improving all the time. It’s smoother and I used every centimetre of the road. I’ve never driven such a good car on asphalt as this Fiesta. It’s so stable and handled like a racing car. When it feels as good as that I have the confidence to drive as if I was on a race track.
“Sébastien came up to me after the last stage to shake my hand and congratulate me on my time. It was a great feeling to have the seven-time world champion congratulate me for beating him on his favourite surface. Tomorrow I will try to pressurise him. I can’t make up the time in normal circumstances but I will push hard and see what happens,” he added.
Currently tied for the championship Mikko Hirvonen is balancing risk and caution to insure enough points to take his fight with Loeb to the season finale in Wales, Great Britain. The Flying Finn has never been a fan of tarmac racing and it shows in his pace, he is nowhere close to the Loeb and Latvala. It should be expected if Latvala cannot catch Loeb then he will need to make way for his teammate to ensure Hirvonen takes maximum points away from Spain.
“I kept my position and that was important with championship points in mind," remarked Hirvonen. "The Power Stage will be vital tomorrow, with bonus points available. It seems as if the outcome of the title will not be decided until the final round in Britain next month, so any points that I can take from the Power Stage could be crucial at the end of the season,"
For now, Hirvonen’s fight comes from behind as Dani Sordo recovered from a disappointing first day. The MINI driver has done well in recent rallies and looks to wring out all the performance the new car can give him as he chases after fourth place. By setting the best time on today’s penultimate stage the challenge was sent to Hirvonen, who responded by going faster than the Spaniard on the last test. Over half a minute separates the fight, Sordo has his work cut out from him.
“It has been a really good day, there have been no problems and I am very happy to have a fastest stage time," said hometown hero Sordo. "The battle with Mikko for the podium is very tough, as he is a bit far away in terms of times and the gap is now 37 seconds. However, my plans for the final day are to push Mikko really hard and fight him for the podium. It would be really nice to be on the podium here on my home rally, but I am realistic about what I have to do.”
Far out of the fight Sebastien Ogier rounds off the top five. The Frenchman suffered another puncture today and lost his fourth place to Sordo. His rally so far has been a disaster for Citroen, as Ogier was meant to be Loeb’s wingman this weekend and help keep the Ford drivers off the podium. Instead Sordo is in a rally of his own with little chance of improvement unless someone ahead of him in the time-sheets is forced to retire.
“We started out with the aim of catching Mikko Hirvonen, but the second puncture stopped us in our momentum. We’re now over three minutes behind so there’s not a lot left to hope for,” explained Ogier. “Yesterday, it was my fault but today I don’t understand what happened as we didn’t cut the corner. Now our aim is to finish the rally and score points for Citroën.”
Click here to see day 2 results for the Rally de España