Schilke, WRC correspondent
Jari-Matti Latvala took the overall lead in Portugal away from his Ford teammate, Petter Solberg, in this weekend’s start of the fourth round on the 2012 FIA World Rally Championship calendar. It was not a smooth day, by any means, for the top teams chasing for this year’s crown; however the Ford duo were one-two in yesterday’s qualifying and elected to start further back on roads that would be cleaned by their main rivals.
Ford’s main rival, Citroen, is now down to one car to challenge for the victory in Rally de Portugal. The eight-time consecutive champions, Sebastien Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena, are out of the event after a crash on SS3.
Latvala was fastest on the third stage to steal the lead from the Norwegian and then they both had to contend with the heavy rain in the final night stage. The Finn has only a 2.6 second edge, and they both have Mikko Hirvonen trailing them as he is just over two seconds to Solberg.
It has not been an easy evening but our [road] position has paid off.
“It has not been an easy evening but our [road] position has paid off. If it rains tomorrow then starting lower down is not the best for sure but luckily we will have the soft tyre option,” said Latvala.
Solberg nearly lost it on the final special when he did a slight pirouette in his Fiesta RS. The Norwegian explained, “It was very wet from the start, very slippery. I had a half spin - it was so muddy in some places, just slipping basically.”
Hirvonen sits third as the sole Citroen driver who, along with team leader Loeb, elected to start the night stages first and second. The Finn commented after ending the day only 5 seconds off the leader, “It’s almost funny that the differences are so small given that we chose such different strategies as regards the starting positions. I don’t really know who chose the best option, but I am convinced we took fewer risks. If there had been more dust or if the rain had fallen earlier, we would have had a big advantage."
Ott Tanak was the star on the final stage tonight, and even though he is nearly 16 seconds off the pace of the leader, he earned his first WRC gravel stage win. Tanak was all smiles despite the rain at the end of the fourth special stage.
“For us, it was really dry on the first stages so we had to do a bit of cleaning," explained the M-Sport driver. "But then it started to rain which changed the conditions quite a lot. Overall I think our starting position wasn’t too bad. But I also think there wasn’t a perfect starting position for today. In the first stages it was better to be behind, but in the last ones, for sure it was better to be out in front.
“So, all in all, I think we did ok!” added Tanak.
Thierry Neuville rounds out the top five, the Citroen Junior driver showed great pace on the wet final stage. Mads Ostberg closed the day further back in sixth place, followed by Evgeny Novikov for M-Sport in seventh. Hayden Paddon leads the SWRC while holding ninth overall. It was a trying day for Volkswagen driver Sebastien Ogier, who could only manage 14th in his Skoda Fabia. Even worse news came from the Prodrive MINI WRC Team, as Danni Sordo could not start the third stage due to electrical woes.
Tomorrow will cover some new ground in the rally, while other stages have been ran, but not recently. In all 132.68km (82.44 miles) of twisty gravel await the teams. More rain is on the forecast for tomorrow, so more drama can be expected. Losing the early points leader on the first day has left this rally wide open. The three-way battle for the lead will continue on tomorrow, come rain or shine. Whomever can pull out a gap today stands a good chance of seeing their lead whittled down tomorrow. With three days to go, the results are as uncertain as the weather.