Latvala masters tactical games as Fiesta hits top gear in Finland
Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are in the thick of a thrilling three-car fight for victory in Rally Finland after a day in which the team won six of the eight speed tests. Latvala lies just 2.6sec from the lead in third position in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, after he and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen topped the second leg time charts.
In a carbon copy of yesterday, the leading drivers jockeyed for position during the final special stage in a bid to earn a favourable position in the start order for tomorrow's last leg. After his rivals crossed the finish, the team sent a message to Latvala's car with the target time in which he needed to complete the test.
For the second day, Latvala judged his tactics and pace to perfection and will start the final leg with the advantage of being third in the order. It means his two rivals ahead must open the roads, sweeping away slippery loose gravel from the surface.
While Latvala fought tooth and nail to defend his 2010 victory in this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, fellow Finn Hirvonen staged a battling recovery from last night's time loss to climb from 36th to sixth in a Ford Fiesta RS WRC. Hirvonen claimed five stage wins while Latvala took one.
The long second leg took competitors south from the rally base of Jyväskylä. They journeyed along the west shores of Lake Päijänne towards Helsinki for gravel speed tests around Lahti not used in the WRC since the 1980s. Drivers tackled eight stages covering 134.60km on a mix of narrow, technical sections and fast, wide, smooth roads for which this rally is famous.
Latvala restarted in third and retained position during the opening three tests which preceded a short 15-minute service zone on the waterfront in Lahti.
"My driving wasn't perfect but I pushed hard," he said. "I was a little frustrated with my performance on the first two stages, but much happier on the last one. I raised the height of the car at the back but I didn't like it so I changed it back again. I made the dampers softer to improve the traction, but I didn't want to go too soft because the car would lose stability."
The 26-year-old won the opening stage after service and maintained a strong pace throughout the afternoon and evening to return to Jyväskylä in buoyant mood. "I have all the keys in my hand. The Finnish fans want a victory and I want to give it to them, but it won't be easy," he said.
"I need to be perfect and the car must be perfect, because it will be a big fight. I wanted a gap of no more than 10sec to the leader so the margin I have is ideal. I'm not a massive fan of tactics like this but it was exciting tonight and the team did a great job, for which I thank them. I know tomorrow's stages well and I'm so much looking forward to what I hope will be a great day," added Latvala.
After losing two minutes last night, 30-year-old Hirvonen's target was to win as many stages as possible and climb up the leaderboard as high as he could. He won all three stages during the first section to climb to 15th and added two more victories during the afternoon as he stormed back inside the top 10.
"Today's stages were probably the easiest of the three legs and I'm pleased with my speed," said Hirvonen. "I can't catch the top three drivers on pace alone, but I would like to catch Mads Østberg for fifth. I decided not to think about yesterday. It happened, and today I just wanted to drive as fast as I could and see how high I could climb.
"I'm glad it didn't rain because my road position was perfect in the dry and I would have lost that advantage if it was wet. My start position won't be as good tomorrow, but still better than all the drivers ahead of me. I chose to carry a second spare tyre this afternoon and that affected the balance of the car. It slid more and tyre wear was greater, so perhaps it was a mistake to do that," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 17th in the team's third Fiesta RS WRC, the Abu Dhabi driver having climbed from 28th when he restarted this morning.
Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with his drivers' performance. "It was a terrific display by both of them and it resulted in six fastest times. The team strategy was perfect to ensure Jari-Matti is in the best possible position to challenge for a win. Mikko fought back superbly and both cars ran faultlessly with great pace," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson climbed from eighth to fifth in a Fiesta RS WRC, despite losing 15sec with a spin this morning, while team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor moved into 10th. Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are 11th in the team's other surviving car. The FERM Power Tools-entered car of Dennis Kuipers and Frederic Miclotte is 14th. Jari Ketomaa and Mika Stenberg rolled their Fiesta RS WRC out of fifth place in the eighth stage, while Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet retired from 13th position when their car stopped in the same test.
Unusually for a WRC round, the final day is the longest. After leaving Jyväskylä at 07.00, drivers face two identical loops of five stages in familiar territory around the towns of Keuruu, Korpilahti and Petäjävesi. The rally ends with the live TV Power Stage around the ski-jumping area on the edge of Jyväskylä, the same test that closed yesterday's leg. Drivers tackle 11 stages covering 140.05km before the finish at 21.00.