Sebastien Loeb, the world champion, was left to rue a tactical blunder on his tyre choices for handing Mikko Hirvonen a sizeable advantage to take into today's final leg of Rally Sweden. For much of yesterday's action the six-time title winner was within 10 seconds of his BP Ford Abu Dhabi rival as they duelled on the snow-covered roads.
But he struggled on the last two full road stages of the day as the decision to put new front tyres on his Citroen backfired as he was left scrambling for grip in the Arctic conditions. Hirvonen gained a 15-second advantage on the Frenchman in the two stages to open up a 23-second lead. Though Loeb pulled back six seconds on the final stage of the leg as Hirvonen struggled with his own worn tyres, he still trails by 16.6 seconds with five stages to go.
"It didn't work out," lamented Loeb of his strategy. "We had good front tyres but the rears were destroyed and the car was undriveable. I couldn't push, I just had to follow the road and couldn't attack. "The rear end wouldn't follow the front of the car - even after I tried to wear the fronts deliberately. Having new tyres at the front and destroyed ones at the rear was worse than having four destroyed ones."
Hirvonen had his own problems with tyre compounds and said he was not taking anything for granted despite his lead over his rival. "It's the same for everybody," he said. "The tyres don't last in these conditions, but OK, we are here, let's see." The Finnish driver had begun the day with a six-second lead and he immediately extended that by another four seconds as he started strongly. But an unperturbed Loeb struck back, going quickest on the next three stages to haul his Citroen to within four seconds of his championship rival.
Tactics began to come into play in the afternoon as the drivers repeated the morning stages and concerns over grip levels on the rutted roads led to alternative strategies being devised by the front runners. Hirvonen stopped the rot on stage 13 by going 2.7 seconds faster, but then things really went his way as Loeb's tyre choice proved the wrong one and left the Finn strongly placed to secure the 12th World Rally Championship (WRC) victory of his career
His teammate Jari-Matti Latvala is on target for third place after taking advantage of problems for the second Citroen of Dani Sordo. The Spaniard lost pace after hitting a snow bank on stage 11 and suffered minor car damage from the incident, before losing one minute after suffering engine problems on stage 15, which allowed Latvala to leapfrog him in the standings and build-up a 50 second cushion for good measure.
The possible podium finish would be reward for a mature drive from Latvala, who has improved as the rally has gone on, but, like his teammate, he is not looking to far ahead. "It's a demanding rally tomorrow. We need to be cautious," he said. In fifth place is the Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier, while sixth place is held by the Ford Stobart of Henning Solberg. The third Ford of Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi lies in 14th after driving solidly to move up three places from his overnight position.
The Emirati is pleased with his form on the unfamiliar surroundings of snow and ice and said: "I have so far been able to adapt to the snow and ice on the gravel, and if I can stay within contention of the pace, I will be pleased." email@example.com