Conditions were the name of the game for the gravel stages today. Loeb would start first on the road and usually that is an issue, but conditions actually favored the French ace as dust would cause the cars running behind massive problems. The gravel stages were very dry and there was not much of a breeze during the morning loop. That caused the dust to just sit in the air and make visibility a real issue. Loeb would take a small lead into the mid day service over Jari-Matti Latval and his fellow title contenders. Some large rocks on Stage 1 would catch Petter Solberg, Ken Block and Ott Tanak out. Petter Solberg would suffer substantial damage to his Citroen DS3 and will not restart on day 2. Terrible news for Solberg who was excluded from the last rounds results after failing post rally tech by 4 kilograms.
The afternoon stages would be a bit different as conditions would improve for the trailling cars allowing Latvala to take a 16 second lead into the final stage of the day. Loeb was holding in second position as the cars behind were able to see the stage a lot better. Hirvonen would be P3 after SS5 and still very much in the title hunt. Sebastien Ogier would fall to 4th overall after a puncture cost him over a minute. You could tell the young Frenchman was upset after taking the fight to Loeb. Many thought Ogier would play second fiddle to Loeb in the quest for the title, but it was clear the young gun was out for his own title aspirations as well with some really quick stage times. Really Ogier was the only other car that could run similar pace to Latvala through the afternoon loop.
SS6, the final stage of the first leg would be run in very dark conditions. This required the use of the light pods on the cars, but dust would again comeback as an issue for the cars trailing Sebastien Loeb. The bright lights off of the pods would make visibility impossible as the breeze died. Four minutes was not enough time between cars with drivers further down the order like Dani Sordo saying the more cars that run, the worse the conditions got. Sebastien Ogier would have a slight off on the stage and lose just a little time to Loeb. The real loser of the stage was Jari-Matti who would suffer a spin and also collect a puncture. This removed Latvala from the rally lead and promote Loeb back to the point heading into the tarmac stages. Truly a devestating blow to the Ford drivers. Latvala needed to build as big a lead as possible heading into the road stages. Instead, he lost all of his time and will now have to chase Loeb on the champions favorite surface.
Latvala has shown decent tarmac pace in Germany and France, but is it enough to chase down the champion? I don’t think we will see Loeb taking too many risks on stage after his last couple retirements. This may put Latvala in a position to yet again slow and allow teammate Hirvonen to take the runner up honors in a bid to keep his title chances alive. It will be crucial as well for Ogier to try and push past the Ford’s. He can still claim a podium and can still win the title with a good showing here and in Great Britain.
The title is still all to play for and we have seen some interesting developments in rallies previous. Can the Citroen DS3 survive the long distance that is Rally Spain? Or will it be the Fiesta’s new pace on tarmac that aids Hirvonen to his first championship? Keep it here at OpenPaddock for daily championship updates as well as team responses during Rally Spain.