David C. Schilke, WRC correspondent
Drier conditions greeted the World Rally Championship crews on the third day of Rally de Portugal. It was a welcome relief after rain, fog and mud made yesterday a challenging test. Among others, Sebastien Loeb, Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg have all been caught out by the rally.
Only Mikko Hirvonen remains and the Finn has all but wrapped up his maiden win with the Citroen team since joining them at the start of the season. While his rivals have retired or dropped off the podium, Hirvonen has kept it together and now leads the rest of yesterday’s survivors by over one minute.
Despite adopting a pace that ensured we didn’t make any mistakes, we still managed to increase our lead.
“Today was absolutely perfect,” confirmed Mikko. “The car worked very well and we were able to control the rally from the front as we planned. Despite adopting a pace that ensured we didn’t make any mistakes, we still managed to increase our lead. The main difficulty involved adapting our tyre choice to the weather conditions. We can say now that we made the right choices!”
Mads Ostberg has moved into second overall, ahead of Evgeny Novikov of M-Sport. Both drivers faced problems with their Fords today, which allowed Hirvonen to run away with the lead. Ostberg was down a cylinder and probably thought his chance for a podium was all but over, yet Novikov ended up with a much worse problem, as the car suffered from a misfire all day long.
“We gained quite a lot in the beginning of the stage but we have an engine problem and the car dropped onto three cylinders,” said Ostberg after the morning loop. “I had to use a lot of revs to stop it from happening but we struggled too much.”
For Novikov, all the Russian can do is write off the day and hope for better progress tomorrow, “I was trying to push over the afternoon loop but it has been quite difficult. We made a few small mistakes but we did not lose so much time, maybe a maximum of 10 seconds.
"I don’t know the stages so we are just trying to do our best. Tomorrow we will have to see what the weather will be like. If we have rain of course I will push, but if it is dry I will maintain my speed and just try to finish the rally.”
Citroen’s Nasser Al-Attiyah sits fourth after today’s action. Solberg originally held the position, but lost some of the ground he had made up through the day when his Ford’s power steering failed him on the final stage. He will have 16 seconds to make back to regain the position from the Qatari.
“The final stage was really hard on my hands and arms,” said Solberg. “After driving the whole way with no power steering, my hands are blistered and my arms ache, and it shows how important good fitness is. I want to score as many championship points as I can. As we’ve seen already in this rally, a lot can still happen over the final 115km and I haven’t ruled out a podium finish yet.”
Solberg earned the majority of stage wins today but the opening and final test went to Prodrive MINI’s Dani Sordo. Yet, even with a strong pace when things were going his way, the Spaniard finds himself in 12th place after a bad exhaust leak filled his cabin with car smog.
Latvala encountered more problems today as well. The Finn tried to climb up the order like his teammate but a fuel pump sent him back out of the points. Latvala ended the day 18th overall.
“When things go wrong for me on a rally, they seem to go really wrong,” lamented Latvala. “It’s frustrating because I had a chance of climbing into the top 10 again, but that’s gone now. Tomorrow I will focus on trying to score bonus points in the Power Stage and manufacturer points for the team.”
Only six more stages stand between Hirvonen and victory. The final test, called Sambro, will be the weekend’s Power Stage and the last chance for drivers like Latvala and Sordo to earn some precious points to salvage their disappointing weekend. While the rest of the field fights to consolidate a strong finish, all Hirvonen has to do is go for a Sunday drive.