A thrilling battle for victory is in store on the third day of Wales Rally GB after Sebastien Loeb reached Friday’s final service halt in Builth Wells leading Jari-Matti Latvala by 1.1s.
In a day of high drama, Citroen driver Loeb increased his grip on an eighth world crown when title rival Mikko Hirvonen retired with damage to the radiator of his works Ford Fiesta RS WRC following contact against a submerged tree stump when he slid into a bank.
Hirvonen’s exit left Loeb torn between pushing for his fourth-straight victory in Wales and ensuring a strong finish in order to put the destination of this year’s World Rally Championship beyond doubt.
“For sure we are in a good situation at the moment after Mikko’s problems,” said Loeb. “We are waiting a bit now to see if Mikko restarts or not tomorrow. If he does not restart then we are world champion and after that there will be no pressure. But now Jari-Matti is one second behind so it’s going to be very close.”
With Loeb opting to play safe while he waited on news on whether Hirvonen would be able to restart on day two or not, Latvala gradually cut the Frenchman’s lead with an impressive charge in the afternoon.
“I was struggling and not having a great feeling in the morning and not driving well,” said Latvala. “But the afternoon was better and I got a good feeling.”
It’s not just the battle for victory that’s tightly poised with Norwegians Mads Ostberg and Petter Solberg engaged in a close fight for third place. After stage 11 Ostberg is 7.8s clear of Solberg, who lost vital seconds with a puncture and broken damper on stage seven.
Henning Solberg is fifth with Ott Tanak impressing in sixth overall on his debut in a new-generation World Rally Car. Tanak is also the only driver running on DMACK tyres against a host of Michelin-shod rivals.
Kimi Raikkonen is seventh with Kris Meeke battling back to eighth place after an alternator problem delayed him on Friday morning. The Northern Irish ace underlined his pace by going fastest of all on stage nine in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC.
Rain, fog and muddy conditions have played havoc throughout the day and contributed to several drivers hitting trouble. Dani Sordo slid into a ditch on stage five, where Peter van Merksteijn Jr also retired after going off the road. Matthew Wilson slipped from seventh to ninth after losing time in fog on Friday’s final test in his M-Sport Stobart Fiesta.
Dennis Kuipers is 10th for the FERM Power Tools World Rally Team with Team Abu Dhabi’s Evgeny Novikov 11th and Ken Block 12th in his Monster World Rally Team Fiesta.
Production Car world champion Hayden Paddon, driving an R4-specification Subaru Impreza in competition for the first time, overcame various set-up problems to complete Friday’s stages in 13th overall. Motorsport Italia’s Armindo Araujo is 14th following intercom woes in the morning.
Kevin Abbring has excelled in Volkswagen Motorsport’s Skoda Fabia Super 2000. The Dutch rising star is 15th overnight.
Saturday’s action itinerary consists of six stages, the first of which, Hafren, gets underway at 09:24hrs local time.
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