Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila continue to hold third and sixth places respectively following today's second leg of Rally de Espaņa.
There was little movement on the leaderboard as this 11th
and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship sped through the Catalonian hills, and both Finnish pairings retained their Day One positions in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars.
Today's action headed northwest of the rally base in Salou. Competitors tackled two identical loops of three speed tests covering 127.98km with the daunting 38.27km El Priorat/La Ribera d'Ebre, the longest test of the rally, opening each loop.
Clear, dry conditions overnight gave way to another hot day and hard compound Pirelli tyres were the obvious choice for Hirvonen and Latvala throughout. Dirt dragged onto the road surface by cars cutting corners ensured conditions were slippery at times.
Drivers' championship leader Hirvonen accepted that trying to catch the two drivers ahead was fruitless, so his priority was to retain his advantage over fourth-placed Petter Solberg. The 29-year-old ended the morning loop having widened the margin from 25.5sec to 27.4sec. The afternoon was a virtual carbon copy with small time gaps between the battling duo, and the day ended with the two split by 22.4sec.
"I was closer to the drivers in front than I was yesterday, but it wasn't quite enough to match them," said Hirvonen. "I can't find the last few seconds that I need so there is still some work to do to improve on asphalt.
"Like everyone else, I suffered from slight understeer in long second and third gear corners which meant I didn't have enough grip at the front. There are many different things that could cause it, but I didn't want to make a big change to the car's set-up to try to cure it in case it was a big step in the wrong direction.
"I drove to maintain position and keep Petter behind me," Hirvonen explained. "If the rally ends like this tomorrow then there would be just one point between myself and Sebastien Loeb
going into the final round, so that would be some battle. But I have to make sure there are no mistakes tomorrow.
Latvala was a model of consistency. The 24-year-old finished all six stages in sixth place and has been placed sixth in 11 of the 12 tests held so far. He is under no pressure from behind, ending the day more than 3min 20sec ahead of the seventh-placed driver.
"Today was similar to yesterday, in that I was faster in the afternoon than the morning," said Latvala. "I was a rock solid sixth on every stage but the time difference from the leaders was less this afternoon. My split times on the long stage this afternoon were much better, but I know I have more work to do with my driving on asphalt.
"I had a good conversation with Mikko at lunchtime," he continued. "He told me to drive straight and aggressively through the cuts in the bends. That helped a lot because my speed is fine when the road is clear, but I'm losing time when it's necessary to cut the corners."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr restarted under SupeRally rules in 42nd after retiring yesterday afternoon with a fractured exhaust manifold on their Focus RS WRC. They charged back up the order with a string of top ten times to climb to 18th this evening.
Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was satisfied with the team's day: "Mikko delivered another strong performance to maintain his hold on a podium place. He is in a difficult position because he has to finish to take the points to stay ahead in the championship. He drove conservatively but maintained a good pace. Jari-Matti experimented with the set-up of his car and once again he was very consistent in an error-free day."
The final leg is the shortest of the rally and stays closer to Salou than the opening two days. After leaving at 07:15, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages west of the town covering 93.88km, split by a return to Salou for service. The finish is back in the town at 15:07.