PHOTO: Mikko Hirvonen fights for second place in his last WRC rally before retirement (M-Sport pic).
WORLD Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier ended Saturday’s second leg of Wales Rally GB with a comfortable lead ahead of a thrilling battle on Sunday for the remaining podium places.
The Coates Hire Rally Australia winner and recently-confirmed 2014 champion will start the final leg with a 58.1sec advantage in his Volkswagen Polo R. Any pressure on Ogier evaporated when teammate Jari-Matti Latvala slid into a ditch in the opening stage and lost more than three minutes.
Wales Rally GB is the 13th and last round of the 2014 FIA World Rally Championship. It precedes a short off-season, with teams returning for Rallye Monte-Carlo on 22-25 January and with Rally Australia, again Round 10, on 10-13 September.
Latvala’s mistake in Wales Rally GB left Mikko Hirvonen, Kris Meeke and Mads Østberg in a titanic fight for second. They swapped places in virtually every stage before Hirvonen claimed second in a Ford Fiesta RS, 3.4sec clear of Kris Meeke’s Citroen DS3.
Hirvonen’s performance is shaping as his best of the year and a podium finish would be a deserving climax to the 13-year career of the 34-year-old Finn, who will retire from the WRC at the end of this event.
Conditions in the north Wales forests were again muddy, especially in the afternoon as the polished surface made the roads extremely slippery, and Ogier took no risks. He set only two top-six times over nine special stages, covering 113.74km.
“It wasn’t an easy day because the roads were very slippery, especially in the final stage in the dark,” Ogier said.
“I have a comfortable lead so tomorrow I just need to drive the same way and try to cross the finish line.”
The fight for second lit up the forests. Hirvonen had control initially before Østberg overhauled both the Finn and Meeke to hold the advantage at the mid-leg service, when the trio was split by 1.4sec.
However, Østberg received a 10sec penalty for checking in late at a time control and a delaminated tyre cost a further 15sec as he slipped to fourth.
Hirvonen and Meeke twice traded positions before Hirvonen sealed the overnight advantage in the final test.
Thierry Neuville took advantage of Østberg’s woes to close in fifth, despite hitting a chicane in the penultimate stage and knocking his light pod out of alignment. The gap between them is 3.3sec.
Elfyn Evans was sixth ahead of fellow Fiesta RS pilot Ott Tänak, with Henning Solberg eighth despite losing 40sec with a puncture.
Latvala, who also broke a front-right damper during his accident, recovered to ninth with Martin Prokop completing the leaderboard.
Road opener Andreas Mikkelsen restarted after retiring on Friday with broken suspension and enjoyed the best of the conditions as the roads deteriorated with every car. He won four stages in the morning and added a fifth in the afternoon despite a faulty intercom.
Sunday’s final leg comprises six short stages covering 46.12km.