David Schilke, WRC correspondent
Sebastien Loeb extended his overall lead on leg 3 before the competitors head to Monaco tonight. It was not an easy day for anyone and for the first time since the Monte Carlo Rally began, the Citroen ace did not take a stage win. Instead, it was his teammate Mikko Hirvonen who is the one smiling, even if back in fourth, after he was fastest on two of the three stages; earning the Finn his first stage wins with the factory Citroen team.
Loeb’s lead over second-placed Dani Sordo is now more than two minutes and 12 seconds. The conditions today were very challenging as Loeb said, “We knew that the weather might be difficult today. That's why I kept pushing yesterday to try and open a bit of a gap at the front. If we had chosen the wrong tyres this morning, then I would almost certainly have lost the lead in the rally! Far from doing that, we’re now in a strong position… if the rest of the rally is run in dry conditions.”
MINI team driver Sordo was again having a good battle with Ford’s Petter Solberg for second. Since the start on Wednesday, the two have been the ones to watch. Solberg was in good shape to start the day's contest as he set the fastest time in what is the 11th stage of the rally, putting him ahead of the Spaniard. The Norwegian was ecstatic, “It feels fantastic to have won our first stage driving the Ford Fiesta,” said Solberg. “The opening stage was fantastic. It was wet all the way through and the last few kilometres were trickier because there was a little bit of ice but to take the win in such difficult driving conditions was a great feeling.”
Poor road conditions on the next stage affected everyone as they had to deal with fog and black ice along with standing water, so tyre choice was critical. At the end of the 12th stage, Hirvonen was the star in his Citroen DS3 and Solberg dropped back to third.
“I am happy with how it has gone today. In the first two stages the car felt good and I am happy now with the choice we took as we took a lot of time off Petter. In the first stage it was good as I had the right slick tyres. In the second, even though the studs would have been better, I know overall we took the right choice," Sordo said.
It was the final stage of leg three -- the 13th of the rally -- when Solberg ended up with a costly mistake. “Overall, it’s been a good day,” said the Norwegian. “On the last stage, I made a mistake – I cut a corner very slightly and hit a rock with my front wheel. It was a shame because I was one second up on Loeb and four seconds up on Sordo at that point."
Sordo now has a clear advantage of one minute due to Solberg’s cutting the corner and ending up with wheel rim damage to the left front if his Ford Fiesta. "We still need to stay focused as anything can happen on this rally. If the conditions are okay for the rest of the rally, it will be okay, but if it starts raining or snowing we have to be careful as in this rally it is very easy to make a mistake,” said the Spaniard.
If Hirvonen can replicate his performance today the Finn has a chance to take the final podium spot away from Solberg. As it stands after Friday, the Citroen driver is 23.8 seconds behind Solberg, one bad mistake from the Ford driver and Hirvonen could close the gap. “When the grip is consistent, I feel very good in the car,” confirmed the Finn. “There are still 90km of stages to complete, so taking third spot on the podium is by no means out of the question!”
M-Sport is easily the leading privateer team with Evgeny Novikov and French rally legend François Delecour sitting in fifth and sixth respectively. Like Hirvonen, Novikov is close enough in the standings to capitalize on any frontrunner's mistake. For now the M-Sport team looks to be in position to solidly bank points in their first rally of 2012. Further back PG Andersson leads the S2000 class in a new Proton Satria Neo; the Malaysian car company is sticking its toe in the water to see if there is a future in rally racing.
The famous Moulinet-La Bollene Vesubie and Lantosque-Luceram stages await the crews tomorrow. Both tests will be looped twice before returning to Monaco city for their final overnight service.