Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen surrendered the lead of Rally Norway on Friday’s final stage, slipping 2.6 seconds behind Sebastien Loeb into second place.
This ignited speculation that Hirvonen had slowed his pace intentionally in order to benefit from a racing line swept of loose snow by the new leader Sébastien Loeb.
Hirvonen insisted the switch was not deliberate.
“My rear tires are completely finished. I tried really hard,” he said. “We had a lot more tire wear than the Citroens. I’m missing lots of studs. This is definitely not what I wanted to do. Now we have a lot to make up. It’s going to be a big fight tomorrow.”
Loeb did not know he was the new rally leader when he finished the stage, but didn’t think road clearing would be that important. “Its really good fun to drive like this,” said the Citroen Total driver. “I pushed really hard, took some risks sometimes, but we’re here okay and in a good position for tomorrow. If I had a choice I would prefer to be second on the road but I really don’t think it will be a big difference.”
In the WRC, the previous day’s top finisher starts the next day’s stages first. In some cases the stages have loose dirt, gravel, or in this case, snow which—makes for less than ideal conditions for the driver. Those following benefit from the lead car’s “sweeping” of the stage.
Finishing the day in third was Jari-Matti Latvala in his BP Ford Abu Dhabi Team Focus RS WRC. The Finn will start tomorrow 23.6 seconds adrift of Hirvonen. “Of course I want to apply some pressure,” he said. “This morning was bad but we’ve improved a lot this afternoon. Let’s see how we go.”
Loeb’s teammate Dani Sordo ended the day fourth and is hopeful for a better day on Saturday. “I lost lots of time in the slow parts and I need to study the data to understand why,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of studs left in my tiresz-which didn’t help on the last stageZ-but I might need to alter my style of driving. Third place here is going to be difficult to achieve so my priority is to protect fourth—that wouldn’t be a bad result.”
Petter Solberg finished the day a surprising fifth, 22.9 seconds behind Sordo, but regretted a weight-saving tire plan. “We had a good morning and things were fine on the first stage this afternoon but I was the only car to take just one spare and that turned out to be a very stupid decision!” he said. “We lost a lot of studs. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it is—we will keep pushing.”
P-G Andersson took his first stage win of his career on SS6, and finished second on SS7. He ended the day sixth, just a tenth of a second behind Petter Solberg. “I’m going to take another two stage wins tomorrow!” said the former Suzuki factory driver. “The second time through the stages today has been fantastic. We had plenty of grip. I think the position we have now is probably the best we can hope for, but we’ll see.”
In seventh place, 7.8 seconds behind Andersson is Henning Solberg. The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver battled mechanical issues all day but is optimistic that he will make rapid progress through the standings on Saturday. “With the gearbox problems we've had today it’s been difficult, but it will be okay,” he said. “I’ll drive on the limit tomorrow. I will be top three!”
Matthew Wilson took the last points position in his Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Focus. Wilson said: “It’s been okay—we tried to keep it as neat and tidy as we could. This has been a day not to make any mistakes. I think tomorrow might be even better.”
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