After two days and nine stages of competition, the battle for the lead could not be tighter on the Costa Daurada, with Citroën and Volkswagen virtually deadlocked at the top of the standings heading in to Sunday’s finale. However, overnight leader Sébastien Ogier, has some tough work ahead if he is to get himself back in to the shakeup for victory, after a puncture lost him 50 seconds and the rally lead on Saturday afternoon. Quick to take advantage of his struggles were fellow Polo pilot Jari-Matti Latvala and Citroën’s Dani Sordo, with the Spaniard trailing the Fin by a miniscule 1.6 seconds overall.
The day had begun with Ogier in predictably jovial spirits, the Frenchman joking about deliberately losing time in order to avoid the dreaded road sweeping duties on Sunday. However, his stalling tactics were rather forced on him when, on stage 6, he damaged his Polo’s front left wheel on a rock masked by a deep cut on the inside of a corner. Fortunately, with midday service just around the corner the time loss was kept to a minimum, but the VW number one still founded himself plummeting from first to sixth, 48 seconds adrift of Sordo. The home favourite began the day well, tying the first test with Latvala and then winning the second outright, and even without Ogier’s midday misfortune looked likely to take over top spot. The afternoon proved an altogether more cagy affair. Since warning pre-event of the likelihood of drivers deliberately shedding time to gain more favourable road positions, Sordo himself has ironically proved the chief beneficiary of these tactics. Much like Friday evening, he cannily manoeuvred himself behind Latvala in tomorrow’s running order by allowing the Fin a slender advantage on stages 7, 8 and 9. The latter was the weekend’s star attraction, a 2.2 km dash along Salou seafront. Sure enough, fans lined the route in their thousands, generating a real carnival atmosphere. This was no party for the drivers though, not least Sordo, whose strategy worked to perfection. He posted the third fastest time behind new leader Latvala and Thierry Neuville and now appears to be in prime position to mount an attack on Sunday morning. Ogier’s day couldn’t of ended any differently to how it began, with the champion pounding down Salou promenade at full throttle in an attempt to claw back lost time. He currently sits fourth overall, 46 seconds further back.
Belgium’s Thierry Neuville had a better day after his set-up issues on Friday. Third behind, Latvala and Sordo, he registered a number of good times, including a precious win on the power stage which should help shore up his second place in the championship. However, It will be a big ask to make up the 29 second deficit if the lead pair steer clear of problems, and with Ogier on the war path behind him, he may well need to be focusing his attention back rather than forward on Sunday.
Mikko Hirvonen and Evgeny Novikov are effectively tied for fifth with 0.1 of a second between them but neither looks like troubling the scorers with a stage win. Mads Ostberg got the better of them both on the closing Salou stage but remains 1 minute 30 seconds further down the road in seventh. Meanwhile, Andreas Mikkelson’s day lasted only a matter of minutes, after the VW number three collided with a stone on the very first stage, destroying his Polo’s rear suspension.
There was much more positive news for Robert Kobica though, who continued his mauling of the WRC 2 line-up. Dropping only one stage all weekend, and even that due to a malfunctioning handbrake, the Pole is tenth overall and virtually in a different time zone to the rest of his class. A four minute cushion, combined with his closest challenger Elfyn Evans losing a wheel on the Salou street stage, means that a maiden title, and perhaps a move to bigger things, surely beckons.
Sunday’s final six tests are all located back in the hills to the west of Salou, where gravel is king. With this in mind, all eyes will be on the weather forecast, as any moisture in the air could reduce the dust hazard and swing things in favour of Latvala. But whilst the Fin will be doing a rain dance tonight, the outlook for Sunday is bright. So might be the spirits of the Spanish crowd by tomorrow afternoon if Dani Sordo can hold his nerve and deploy his master plan to become the first Spaniard since the great Carlos Sainz in 1995 to emerge victorious on his home rally.