Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila continue to lead Wales Rally GB after a second day of fighting ice-bound forest tracks. The Finns won two speed tests in the slippery forests of south Wales to overnight with a 7.3sec lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car in this 15th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen recovered from yesterday's roll to climb to ninth in another Focus RS.
The treacherous conditions further north that decimated yesterday's schedule eased today. Glorious blue skies encouraged huge crowds, although ice was a constant danger after more freezing temperatures overnight. Drivers tackled two identical loops of three special stages before a spectacular final test inside Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in front of an estimated 25,000 fans.
Latvala was first in the start order and the icy roads of the 30.68km Resolfen test offered a tough challenge as the Finn cut through the frozen gravel to leave better grip for those behind. His overnight 12.9sec lead was cut to just 0.8sec, but Latvala posted fastest time in the following stage and his advantage stood at 8.9sec as drivers returned to Swansea for the midday service. A brush with a barrier at a bridge on an icy section this afternoon resulted in his lead dropping to 2.4sec, but a second fastest time on the final forest stage restored a more comfortable margin.
However, 23-year-old Latvala endured more dramas on the liaison section to the Cardiff stage. "The traffic was very heavy in the centre of the city and we had to keep stopping and starting, using the clutch a lot. It began to smoke and I was worried that if I carried on driving it would be destroyed. So we pushed the car for 400 metres to the time control. It was very stressful," he said. He struggled to leave the line in the stadium stage and dropped more than three seconds.
"I had no chance in the conditions on the first stage this morning because the road was very frosty. The surface was rock hard and every time I hit the throttle the wheels were spinning, so I eased off. Before bends I steered the car towards the side of the road, away from the ice, to brake in the gravel where there was more grip. I'm being pressured by those behind but I really want to win here for the team. However, we've had two tricky days and tomorrow will be just as hard," said Latvala.
Team-mate Hirvonen restarted in 29th and top three times on all three morning stages promoted him to 13th. Fastest time on the long Resolfen stage this afternoon maintained the momentum and lifted him back into a manufacturers' points-scoring position.
"I'm trying to climb as high as I can but the aim is also to stay on the road so I'm not taking risks. There was a lot of ice this morning and it was hard to find a good rhythm. The cars ahead of me polished the ice and it was hard to tell where there was grip and where there wasn't," explained 27-year-old Hirvonen.
"This afternoon was better with less ice, but the tricky part was knowing where it was. I think we all had plenty of luck in avoiding crashing because the ice was so patchy that I just didn't know if I was going to go off the road. I will keep pushing hard tomorrow and try to climb as high up the order as I can," added Hirvonen.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr climbed from 21st to 16th in the team's third Focus RS WRC. "Everywhere was icy and I couldn't drive on it comfortably," said Al Qassimi. "I have no experience on this type of surface and I'm struggling to build confidence. That said, I'm still in the rally and I'm in front of some far more experienced drivers than me. If I can keep that going and finish in the top 16, I will be happy," he added.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a strong performance from both drivers. "Jari-Matti has been confident, despite the pressure of Loeb breathing down his neck. It was difficult for him to be first on the road and it will be difficult again tomorrow. Mikko knows how important a third manufacturers' title would be for us and his enthusiasm to battle back shows how committed he is to the team. Temperatures are forecast to drop to -6ºC tonight so the roads will again be treacherous tomorrow," he said.
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) won two tests as he maintained second place while team-mate Dani Sordo, boosted by two stage wins this morning, completes the top three. Petter Solberg (Subaru) moved ahead of Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) to hold fourth, with Stobart driver Henning Solberg rounding off the top six. Mads Ostberg (Subaru) looked set to hold onto fifth but the young Norwegian slid into a ditch on the penultimate stage and retired. The day's other major retirement was junior world champion Sébastien Ogier, making his debut at the top level, who rolled into retirement on the opening stage after leading for much of yesterday.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally with just 96.10km of competition split between two identical loops of two stages in the Vale of Neath. After leaving Swansea at 07.00, drivers return there for service after the opening loop and then journey to Cardiff for the finish ceremony at 14.56.
Leaderboard after Day 2
1. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Focus RS 1hr 47min 52.4sec 2. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 1hr 47min 59.7sec 3. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 1hr 48min 20.3sec 4. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Subaru Impreza 1hr 48min 44.9sec 5. P-G Andersson/J Andersson SWE Suzuki SX4 1hr 49min 58.5sec 6. H Solberg/C Menkerud NOR Ford Focus RS 1hr 50min 01.7sec 7. F Duval/D Giraudet BEL Ford Focus RS 1hr 50min 22.0sec 8. T Gardemeister/T Tuominen FIN Suzuki SX4 1hr 51min 25.4sec 9. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 1hr 52min 36.9sec 10 M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS 1hr 52min 41.9sec