KINGSCLIFF, NSW // Tactics reigned supreme at Rally Australia yesterday as Citroen played their second day cards to perfection and completely outfoxed title rivals BP Ford Abu Dhabi. Although the overnight leaderboard has Citroen's Dani Sordo on top, only 0.1 seconds ahead of teammate Sebastien Loeb and Ford's Mikko Hirvonen in joint-second, the strategic game of cat and mouse was an all day affair.
Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala began leg two first on the road, the 24-year old Finn sweeping the rocky stages for the cars behind. After reining in the Ford No 2 stage by stage, Loeb, Sordo and Hirvonen moved past Latvala when he suffered a devastating puncture at the beginning of the 18.75km 23rd stage. Knowing his rivals would pass him anyway, and fearing a roadside tyre change would cost him more time than dropping speed for the remainder of the stage, Latvala drove on. He effectively fell from first to fourth in one corner but the drama was far from over.
The gravel-based rally ends each day with two, tarmac-based super special runs. However, the pivotal final day starting positions were decided by overall positions at the end of stage 23, before the short, asphalt tests. The Citroen duo, both bitumen specialists, were running behind Hirvonen on the road, and having seen his finishing time flash up during their own stage 23 progress, they deliberately slowed to secure favourable road positions for today's final leg. With drivers' and manufacturers' titles on the line, it seemed a brilliant tactic, but not according to Loeb.
"I don't like these kind of tactics - I prefer to fight from the start to the end," said the five-time world champion. "We decided to slow down and not clear the road. I only had a nine second lead and we thought it would be helpful to be just behind. "It was really hard to wait and lose all the time I had gained. It's frustrating, but we had to do it," he added. Loeb, however, knows the tactical ploy will be wasted if he and Sordo fail to capitalise today.
"There are difficult stages remaining and nothing is finished, there is a hard fight ahead. I'm in the best position and I hope we can do it," added the Frenchman. In the two super specials, Loeb and Sordo twice beat Hirvonen to move back in front of the championship leader in the overall classifications. For Hirvonen, it was the worst possible result: not only is he sweeping the stages clean for his rivals today, but he doesn't even have a lead to show for it.
"I didn't want to be first on the road, but there was nothing I could do about it. It will be tough trying to win from that position if the conditions are dry, but if it's wet, it could be perfect," said the 29-year old Finn. Having never won a World Rally Championship event, Sordo is in prime position to rectify the statistic today. But with Loeb trailing Hirvonen in the drivers' championship, the Spaniard revealed team success outweighs personal glory.
"If I'm leading and Sebastien's in second then I will help him with the championship, of course, it's sometimes frustrating but this is a team," said Sordo. "If we are to win the manufacturers' and drivers' championships, I need to work and help others - these are more important than one victory." Latvala was left cursing his costly flat, saying "I entered a long left hand corner in fifth gear and hit a little bump. I went into a ditch and there was a bank which pushed the tyre off the rim. I carried on but 10 kilometres later the tyre exploded and the rear right panel flew off. I had to drive very carefully so I didn't damage the suspension - I lost a lot of time.
"I'll try and keep the pressure on, but I need to be sensible. If it looks like I can't catch them then it's better to accept fourth place," he added. Elsewhere, Citroen Junior Team driver Sebastien Ogier repeated his opening day speed and finished day two in fifth overall, just 1.8secs behind Latvala. After hitting a tree stump and retiring from day one, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi got his rally back on track with a series of top 10 stage times yesterday. Ford's Emirati No 3 starts today in 26th place.
"I had the possibility to score points before the incident [on Saturday's second leg], but it's meant to be like that, this is rally and I have to accept it," al Qassimi. "I'm happy that we lifted our pace and the times were better and better - we can't go anything less, only more." email@example.com