Different fortunes for the Skoda and Abarth teams
With one day remaining the 2009 Rally Russia has so far been an extraordinary success for one man - Skoda Motorsport's Finnish star, Juho Hanninen. While he races serenely on through the forests around the Baltic city of
Vyborg, the rest of the field have been providing drama, incident and action aplenty.
Before the start of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge's sixth round, Hanninen was clearly looking forward to returning to a gravel-based event - and one so close to his homeland.
The reason why he was looking forward to setting out from Vyborg last night has now become clear to see, as his Fabia S2000 has slithered through the waterlogged stages with aplomb and has yet to be challenged for victory on any of the stages of this gruelling event.
"We didn't start the last stage because of safety issues, because people are on the road," said Hanninen. "Apart from that, the day was nice. No problems with the car, no mistakes. A few times it was a bit close to the rocks, but we got through without any punctures."
"It was quite a long day, I don't need to push any more, so I'm focusing on keeping my tyres away from troubles," he declared.
To be just under a minute in arrears of Hanninen is testament to the skill of his team-mate, asphalt star Jan Kopecky. The Czech driver showed his loose surface skills in the Azores, but this weekend wrested second place away from the fast-starting Giandomenico Basso on merit and has managed to keep his Fabia out of trouble when many of the other contenders have not.
For Abarth, Russia has shown another step forward in pace but both Basso and his young team-mate Anton Alen have had their share of problems. Basso caught two punctures - one on the first night and one on Day Two - which have blunted the challenge that his prodigious pace should have given to the Skoda pair.
Alen, meanwhile, could not capitalize when he was promoted to third place and tore a wheel off his Grande Punto - meaning he must restart tomorrow under SupeRally regulations.
"It was a big route for Day Two but at the end of it I'm now back in third," said Basso. "Tomorrow will be long and difficult day but I hope to do it good! I made a mistake during SS9, five kilometres from the finish – and we punctured another wheel, but we're still in the fight."
Local hero and Russian national champion Aleksandr Zheludov has also shown enormous pace in his Peugeot 207 S2000, but was repeatedly caught with a misfire that has limited him to running on three cylinders.
He is now in a titanic battle with Britain's Guy Wilks in the extremely impressive new Proton Satria Neo S2000 for fourth place, with Wilks on a charge after dropping back from third place after a puncture and malfunctioning car jack cost him valuable time.
"I will not try to fight with Wilks, my goal is the national championship," said Zheludov.
"It is a pity that the cancellation of SS10 makes it more difficult to achieve our goal, but I am pleased with the car. We've had a few problems but kept ourselves in the leading group, so that's good."
Franz Wittmann has doggedly pressed on in what is undoubtedly his best performance of the season so far, going into the final day in sixth place. The Ralliart driver from Austria was confident prior to the start of the rally, and has fulfilled that promise with style despite having a rock-beaten and weary rear differential to contend with.
"It was a hard day for me - we have some punctures and some problems with hitting big stones," he explained. "We finished, we're here, the car is in one piece – I guess I'm happy with that. But I think tomorrow we will have an almost new car and will finish this rally, hopefully!"
The hotly-contested battle between Wittmann and a host of other Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IXs from the Russian national series has been joined by a spirited drive from 2WD Cup leader Kaspar Koilta, the Estonian putting in a thrilling performance throughout the event for Honda.
However on the road section after the final stage of Day Two the Civic's suspension collapsed after the beating it had taken on the rough Russian stages, and Koilta is now forced to restart under SupeRally regulations tomorrow.
This puts Boris Zimin back up into seventh in his Evo IX. Zimin holds a strong advantage over the ranks of his countrymen in similar Ralliart machines.
"Yesterday was more difficult, because on SS1 we had a problem with the gearbox," he said. "Now it is not disturbing us, but there is some question about how the suspension will hold up. Now we are not pushing hard because the gaps are quite big, so tomorrow we will try to keep the position."
Koilta's misfortune has handed the 2WD lead to the Peugeot of Russian driver Dmitriy Voronov.
"Since the start of the rally I decided to play it safe and go carefully through the stages, once it was clear to see how much effect the heavy rains had on the stages," Voronov explained.
"It was worrying to see Kaspar going further and further ahead," he admitted. "But now I have the lead and have had no punctures or broken wheels, unlike a lot of people!"
Starting Saturday morning at 11:06 local time, the crews take on the remaining five gravel stages of Rally Russia's 2009 edition.