Is Loeb cracking under Hirvonen’s pressure?

Day Two of the WRC Neste Oil Rally Finland saw the tantalising prospect of a Sebastien Loeb versus Mikko Hirvonen showdown, the one battle their Citroën Total World Rally Team boss Yves Matton is most nervous about. After the nine stages of action for today, Loeb holds a slender 5-second lead over Hirvonen with just six stages remaining on Day Three.

Loeb and Hirvonen are pushing each other to mistakes, with Loeb the first to show cracks from the pressure: he made a rare driving mistake on the penulatimate stage today and also suffered with a rear differential problem for most of the nine stages run today.

“It’s a long final day tomorrow and we will see what we can do,” said Loeb. “The gap is so small, it will be a hard fight but we have to do it correctly.”

Hirvonen said: “I was pushing really hard and so was Sebastien. Little by little I have taken time out of him. It will be a big fight tomorrow but I am confident.”

The remaining eight places in the top ten are all taken by Ford Fiesta RS WRC crews. The Blue Oval brigade is led by factory driver Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford World Rally Team) with team-mate Petter Solberg right behind in fourth. “I did only one mistake, but the time is not there and there is nothing else I can do,” said Latvala. “Anything can happen but I can’t take any more speed anywhere.”

“Mad” Mads Ostberg is fifth overnight despite set-up issues hampering his overall speed in the morning loop and then brake issues in the afternoon. Ostberg had been in a close battle with Thierry Neuville until the Citroën Junior driver failed to hear a pace note on the penultimate stage and rolled into a retirement. The crew is uninjured.

Ott Tanak (M-Sport Ford World Rally Team) is sixth while Jari Ketomaa has been slowed by a persistent misfire for much of the day in seventh place for Autotek Motorsport. Matti Rantanen finishes Day Two in eighth position with Martin Prokop ninth and Ken Block tenth (Monster World Rally Team).

“I was absolutely loving the stages on the second pass,” said Block. “I had confidence with the pace notes and after being called a grandma by my engineer for my slower driving this morning I knew I had to do more in the afternoon.”

Chris Atkinson was in eighth position, but his return to the WRC has been fraught with gremlins: an intercom glitch in the morning resulted in him going off the road in SS8 after mishearing a pace note. He lost several minutes when his Qatar World Rally Team Citroën DS3 WRC got stuck on a tree stump. He eventually retired when he damaged the right-front of his car after striking a rock in the very next stage.

Evgeny Novikov (ALM Russia Ford Fiesta RS WRC) rolled twice on SS5. He was able to regain his composure and continue in the event but his co-driver Denis Giraudet spent the rest of the day nursing a sore back.

Leader Board after SS12:
01) S. Loeb – 01h 20m 30.4s
02) M. Hirvonen + 05.0s
03) J-M. Latvala + 20.3s
04) P. Solberg + 21.4s
05) M. Ostberg + 47.7s
06) O. Tanak + 01m 36.4s
07) J. Ketomaa + 02m 28.3s
08) M. Rantanen + 02m 47.4s
09) M. Prokop + 03m 18.4s
10) K. Block + 04m 47.0s