Latvala leads into final day of Rally New Zealand
- 30th August 2008, 5:03pm
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team lies first and second after a gripping second day of Rally New Zealand that ended with four drivers covered by less than 16sec going into tomorrow's final leg. Tactics again played a crucial part right at the close of the day's action, which finished with Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila leading team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen by 9.3sec. Both are behind the wheel of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars.
Today's competition on this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship took place north-west of the rally base in Hamilton, 130km south of Auckland. Drivers tackled five smooth and flowing speed tests in the picturesque countryside near the Tasman Sea coastline and a second pass over the super special stage at the rally base. The six special stages covered 130.00km.
Although overcast, conditions remained dry apart from a couple of brief showers – just the weather that overnight leader Hirvonen did not want to see when he woke this morning. As first to start, the 28-year-old Finn swept away the slippery loose gravel on the road surface to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind. With each countryside stage only driven once, he had no opportunity to experience the cleaner conditions himself during a second pass.
Hirvonen's 27.8sec opening day advantage was gradually eaten into by championship rival Sébastien Loeb and the Frenchman eventually moved ahead on the penultimate stage. However, once Hirvonen completed the final test, Loeb deliberately slowed in the final few metres to drop behind the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver and earn a lower, and therefore cleaner, start position for tomorrow.
Latvala, one of three drivers clustered behind Hirvonen and covered by just 2.7sec after the opening day, set a strong pace. He won one stage and posted three more top three times as he climbed from an overnight fourth to third. Aware of the final stage tactics as he was behind both Hirvonen and Loeb in the running order, the 23-year-old Finn blasted through the 32.36km test to take the lead.
Although Latvala now has the handicap of starting first tomorrow ahead of Hirvonen and Loeb, he has a 9.3sec lead over his team-mate and a 13.3sec advantage over the Frenchman – a margin which adds intrigue to the game of cat and mouse which will conclude tomorrow.
"I knew we would lose time but we lost more than I thought," admitted Hirvonen. "There was so much loose gravel on the surface that conditions were really slippery and that's what I expected. This was the hardest day of the rally because each stage was driven only once so there was no chance for me to drive on cleaner roads. When the roads were fast I could match Loeb's pace but in the slow sections I lost time because of the gravel.
"It was a hard day but I came through and the time differences aren't that big. The driver, the car, the pace notes and the rhythm were really good. I could do nothing tactically because I was first on the road. I'm in a good position and all I can do now is try to be faster than all of them tomorrow. It will be really close and I can't wait. I have a good road position but Loeb has a better one so it will be difficult. If I could have chosen my start position I would have selected fourth," he added.
Latvala admitted he was surprised to be leading after starting the final stage in third. "It's a great feeling to be leading tonight but it might bring me some difficulties tomorrow. I wanted to catch Loeb and I was expecting to be in the top three, but not to be leading tonight. I drove flat out on that final stage and tomorrow I need to do the same and be precise. The biggest thing is not to worry about being first on the road, it's being mentally strong that's the important thing," said Latvala.
"It's six months since I won in Sweden and it would be great to win here, but it will be a very open day and a big fight. Maybe the rally could be like last year when Ford won by just 0.3sec. It will be really challenging," he added.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said Latvala and Hirvonen could not have done more to keep the team in the battle. "Once we saw how much Loeb slowed at the end of the final stage, we made an instant decision to let Jari-Matti take his chance and build as big a lead over him as possible. Of course, it also means Mikko has the advantage of being second to start tomorrow. Both drove flat out and it's looking good for an exciting day with four drivers covered by 15sec," he said.
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Behind the top three is Spain's Dani Sordo (Citroen), just 2.4sec behind team-mate Loeb and only 15.7sec from the lead. Stobart driver François Duval (Ford) and Urmo Aava (Citroen) complete the top six. Aava dropped 30sec on the second test after clipping a wall and dragging a tyre off the wheel, driving much of the test on just the wheel rim. That allowed Petter Solberg (Subaru) to move ahead but the Estonian quickly regained the place. Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) lost almost 90sec with brake problems following a hydraulic leak on the morning's third stage but later retook ninth place.
The final day is the shortest of the rally. After re-starting at 07.45, drivers face two identical loops of two stages just south of Raglan, split by a 15-minute remote service in the town. The second test in each loop is the famous Whaanga Coast, which provides spectacular views over the ocean as the road hugs the Tasman Sea coastline. A third pass over the Mystery Creek super special stage brings the action to a close. The five stages cover 85.04km with the finish ceremony scheduled for 15.00.
Results after Day 2:
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