By David C. Schilke
Jari-Matti Latvala had a near perfect start in today’s opening leg of Rally Argentina. The Ford Fiesta took four out of seven stage wins including the first run on the famous El Condor stage, which offered a mix of gravel and tarmac to challenge the World Rally Championship teams. Held around the Cordoba-Villa Carlos Paz some of the kilometers ran today shared the same route taken by the Dakar competitors earlier this year. While not nearly as epic of a journey was undertaken today, there are still two more challenging days before Latvala’s pace can translate into victory.
Latvala is ready for the fight tomorrow, "I will have pressure from those behind me tomorrow, but I wanted to be first in the start order to avoid the hanging dust early in the morning. Tomorrow's roads are soft and fast in a flat area and I'm looking forward to tackling them from the front."
Tomorrow's roads are soft and fast in a flat area and I'm looking forward to tackling them from the front.
With winter approaching the Southern Hemisphere the Argentinean fans braved cold temperatures to watch a battle forming between Latvala, Petter Solberg and Sebastien Ogier. In Thursday’s Super Special opener it was Sebastien Loeb out front but road sweeping duties today and a 1 minute time penalty meant the five-time winner here will most likely not earn a half dozen Argentinean victories in 2011. He will start tomorrow in fifth, 1 minute and 30.3 seconds from Latvala and 47 seconds adrift from fourth placed Mikko Hirvonen.
“The gap is too big for tomorrow in this situation,” said Loeb. “It’s not been a good day. But it was not a tactic, [it was] a mistake for the penalty. There were a lot of people at the checkpoint and people in front of the red [board]. I didn’t see it, I went too far, maybe 10 metres,” said Loeb to the WRC media.
Solberg has kept Latvala honest all day but a poor setup on the tarmac section cost the Norwegian almost ten seconds. Yet today was a special occasion for the privateer Citroen driver, as Solberg earned his 400th stage win on the second running of the Mina Clavero test. He will start tomorrow 18 seconds behind the leader.
"I am really happy with today," commented Petter Solberg. "The tarmac sections were quite tricky but we did great on the gravel. As long as everything stays like it is we will push hard tomorrow, I can promise you that. We have no strategy, we will just go! It is great being here, the stages are good, the atmosphere is unbelievable and there are just so many spectators out there."
A further ten second back sits Citroen's Ogier who may be primed to jump into the lead should road conditions head into his favor. The Frenchman isn’t as confident on tarmac, unlike his champion teammate Loeb, and it showed today. Ogier lacked the confidence needed to tackle the pavement section of El Condor on gravel tyres. Tomorrow is mostly gravel, a surface Ogier is capable of winning on, yet over 28 second to Latvala is a large deficit to cover.
“We were always on the pace even if we were not at our best on the asphalt,” explained Ogier. “We had a puncture this morning and I think I was maybe a bit over-cautious this afternoon. We’re in a very good position for tomorrow. The second day is taking place on roads that suit me a lot better even if it’ll be my first time racing on them. I hope that sweeping will help us a little. I have to find a good feeling right from the start so that I can push. I know we can win”
Behind Hirvonen and Loeb the Stobart M-Sport team have six and seventh cornered with little chance to advance if their rivals ahead have a trouble free weekend, Mads Ostberg leads his teammate Matthew Wilson. Local boy Federico Villagra rounds out the top eight to the delight of his countrymen and is only 13.5 seconds away from challenging Wilson. American Ken Block sits ninth as the last of the WRC cars in the premier class after Daniel Oliveira and Peter van Merksteijn Jr retired from today's action.
Four more stages looped twice await the drivers tomorrow. Latvala may not suffer first on the road as severely as possible but if the dust settles down quickly than Ogier will have a clean line and clear air to work with. In the middle is Solberg, the bridesmaid this season that is eager for his first win. Together all three are looking to make this weekend their personal victory and the way their hand is played tomorrow is critical to that goal. The pace will be instensify tomorrow but speed in rally is a complicated tango with lady luck, one step wrong and she'll look for another dance partner instantly.
Rally Argentina Day 1 Results