Hirvonen poised for home glory

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver has a 32-second lead over the Citroen of Sebastien Loeb to take into today's final four stages of the event.

Jari-Matti Latvala , who had been slowed earlier by food poisoning, speeding into  third place yesterday in the Rally Finland.
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JYVASKYLA, FINLAND // A string of scintillating stage times in yesterday's second leg of the Rally Finland have put the championship leader, Mikko Hirvonen, on the verge of winning his home rally for the first time in his career. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver has a 32-second lead over the Citroen of Sebastien Loeb to take into today's final four stages of the event.

The Finn, who will extend his lead in the world championship by at least two points if he triumphs today, had a strong start to yesterday's action, plus a puncture for Loeb on stage 15, to thank for allowing him to create a sizeable advantage. But despite having some breathing space, Hirvonen is not taking anything for granted going in today's action. "His puncture has taken the pressure off a little, but the lead isn't enough for me to relax," he said.

The Finn had led Loeb by only 3.3secs going into yesterday's nine stages and a titanic struggle between the top two in the championship, who were separated by just one point going into the event, had looked likely. But Hirvonen dominated from the start as he set the quickest time on the first five stages of the day to effectively end Loeb's challenge for his second successive victory in Finland. The reigning world champion had fallen 12.5secs behind Hirvonen after stage 14, but then lost 13.5secs on stage 15 as he suffered a puncture when his car hit a pot hole.

Having lost so much time to his rival, the Frenchman effectively held up the white flag as he admitted he was driving for second place to minimise the damage to his hopes of winning a sixth successive championship. "We lost too much time with the tyre," he said. "Mikko is too fast. We're driving to get to the finish now." While the fight for victory looks to be all over barring mechanical problems for Hirvonen, the fight for the final place on the podium looks likely to go down to the wire.

The second BP Ford Abu Dhabi car of Jari-Matti Latvala holds a slender 10.5secs advantage over Dani Sordo's Citroen. The Finn had struggled early on as he recovered from food poisoning, but he soon was back up to speed and the fastest time on stage 16 saw him take seven seconds out of Sordo to leapfrog the Spaniard and into third place. Latvala said: "In my mind I was counting on fighting back when I felt better, and now I do. It's been a big fight with Dani so far and I know he'll fight back - now we have to keep the position."

Meanwhile, the Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen continued to make an impressive World Rally Championship debut, as he finished the day in 15th place. The Ferrari driver has impressed with his speed, but he is suffering from an engine problem as well as minor suspension damage in his Fiat, which is threatening to curtail his involvement before today's climax. gcaygill@thenational.ae