After the second day of intense mid-field competition in Spain, the Subaru World Rally Team entry of Petter Solberg and Phil Mills remains fifth overall, whilst team-mates Chris Atkinson / Stéphane Prévot pushed hard to climb one position on the morning’s opening test. Brice Tirabassi also retains his overnight position, having just been edged out of a tight scrap of his own.

As forecast, Saturday started colder than yesterday but, after yesterday’s decision, all three SWRT entries left for the first stage on Pirelli’s hard compound P-Zero tyre. Despite a temperature of 11 degrees Celsius that lingered until midday before the sun’s rays were felt in the service park, the hard compound was clearly the right choice for the morning’s conditions.

“To the casual observer today appears to have been a fairly uneventful day, but that belies all the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes” said David Richards. “We’ve certainly learnt a lot more about the car and we will continue to try some further ideas tomorrow morning.”

The longest stage of the rally awaited crews this morning, setting the scene for what was a challenging day on mostly new roads that placed an even greater emphasis on pace-notes. Whilst the opening El Priorat / La Ribera d’Ebre stage was by far the longest at 38.27km, the final test of both the morning and afternoon loops was the toughest of the rally.

The La Llena stage was new for this year’s competition, and the last ten kilometres of the 17.12km stage were undoubtedly the most punishing. Presenting a different surface than the other stages, the roads were covered in dirt and gravel dragged onto the road as crews cut corners, placing their inside wheels onto the dirt on the inside of each corner to shave vital tenths of a second. The roads were even dirtier and loose in the afternoon, and as the temperature rose, the asphalt tyres faced another tough challenge.

Solberg started the day in fifth position with a comfortable gap over Urmo Aava behind him in sixth. The gap stayed constant around the ten-second mark until the final stage, the repeat pass of the aforementioned La Llena. Made more loose and slippery after the first pass, Solberg and Mills battled a reduced grip level, which allowed Aava to close to a mere 1.4seconds to set up a battle that will rage to the finish tomorrow.

“We have been making some changes to the car today so sometimes it has been better and sometimes not so good” said Petter Solberg. “There was so much gravel in the last stage. We lost all our time after this, and now Aava is close. It’ll be hard to keep him behind us tomorrow. The team will look at the car tonight and we’ll see what we’re able to do tomorrow.”

Atkinson and Prévot started the day strongly to pass Ford’s Latvala for seventh position and close the gap to sixth place. Latvala briefly closed to within 0.4seconds, but Atkinson responded to extend his lead despite his car sliding too much on the dirt-strewn asphalt. This persisted into the afternoon as the surface became increasingly slippery, especially on La Llena, and it ultimately prevented the Australian from being able to claim sixth position.

“We were pushing hard all day and moved up a place this morning on the 38km stage which was good” said Chris Atkinson. “On the final stage of the morning we lost some time though, and on the second pass at the end of the day we had less grip towards the finish and lost a lot of time with oversteer.”

Tirabassi and Fabrice Gordon meanwhile continued their positive progress to record their first top-ten stage time on stage eight, the second of the morning; no mean feat given that Catalunya is their first competitive outing in the Impreza. In doing so the duo grabbed eleventh position, but similarly caught by the less grippy conditions in the afternoon, ultimately finished the day 12th overall.

“This morning was ok, but this afternoon the car felt better for me but the times didn’t come” said Brice Tirabassi. “We’ll look at the data tonight and see what we can do. Our speed on stage eight was good and I’m pleased with the last two days. The long stage today especially was fun to drive! We’ll see what we can do tonight in service and I’ll start tomorrow the same way.”

The final day of Rally Catalunya is more akin to a full day than the usually compressed rally-finale. It consists of six stages, the same as both Friday and Saturday, although it is slightly shorter at 93.88 competitive kilometres. The stages are all located closer to the service park in Salou, the farthest stage being just 50km to the west of the rally’s base. All the stages were used in the same format last year, and the 4.11km La Serra d’Almos stage, the shortest of the rally, is the reverse of last year’s shakedown road. Day three’s stages are the dirtiest of the weekend, making grip tricky on the loose covering of sand and gravel.

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