Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC Correspondent
Rain in Finland made for a very interesting qualifying stage today, and it was the defending championship team that earned the right to elect their starting position for this weekend’s Rally Finland. Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena did not have an easy run on the 4.26km special test.
With a time of 2:17.470, Loeb took his second qualifying stage of the year. The new idea by the World Rally Championship series has definitely added an interesting twist to the events this year. Loeb’s time in his DS3 was 0.55 seconds faster than Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala.
The Frenchman kicks start the second half of the season after the summer break by selecting to be 10th on the road in the eighth round of the 2012 WRC calendar. Loeb admitted it was a difficult decision but the unknown factor, of course, is the weather so he made a safe decision.
After the qualifying stage, Loeb alluded to the road condition due to the early rain today: “It was difficult to read the road at times and you were not sure where the slippery places were. “ Loeb has two victories under his belt at the demanding Rally Finland, and knows his work is cut out for him as the Finns have always been the stars at their home event.
Latvala, who knows his homeland’s weather and how the rain affects the roads, admitted “It was a bit soft in places and also a bit rough.” The Finn will start 11th in his Ford factory Fiesta RS.
Mikko Hirvonen was third fastest for the Citroen works team and the Finn is looking forward to his home race and will start 12th ahead of Petter Solberg.
The Norwegian was fourth fastest in is Ford Fiesta, and he admitted he made a minor error but looks forward to the first stage.
The M-Sport Ford drivers and Citroen’s Junior aces have been up in the points this year, and have surprised many. Returning to WRC this weekend is Chris Atkinson and his first time in competition behind the wheel of a Citroen DS3. It was not a good day when he stalled out on the start line. Atkinson will start 17th on the road.
The Australian was not the only one who had problems in the qualifying test. Ott Tanak missed a junction but still managed seventh fastest. The M-Sport driver will be the ninth starter; just ahead of the points leader Loeb.
Evgeny Novikov was fifth fastest in qualifying and will start on the opening day in 14th in his Fiesta. Mads Ostberg takes the 15th start position after setting the sixth fastest time. Both are in privateer Ford Fiestas.
Starting 16th for the Citroen Junior team cars, and just ahead of his teammate this weekend, will be Thierry Neuville, who was eighth quickest today.
Starting first and cleaning the gravel road for those that follow will be Sebastian Lindholm (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) followed by Paolo Nobre (MINI John Cooper Works WRC). How long they will hold the lead is anyone’s guess but no doubt the usual top four from the two factory teams will fight for the first stage win.
In other news today, Nasser Al-Attiyah earned a bronze medal in the men’s skeet shooting event in the Olympics being held in London, England. The Qatari has will return to the World Rally Championship in Germany.
“We are very proud for what he has achieved during the Olympics,” said Nogier, the boss of Citroen Racing Technologies, who manages the Qatar Rally Team car for Al-Attiyah. “It was a big, big goal for him this year and he’s got his medal. Now we hope he can get his first podium in the world championship with our team.”