The BP Ford Abu Dhabi team are closing in on their second successive rally victory as Mikko Hirvonen took a comfortable lead into today's final stages of the Acropolis Rally in Greece. The Finn led by 1min 40.1secs from the German driver Sebastien Ogier after a dramatic action yesterday saw championship leader Sebastien Loeb crash out of the rally in his Citroen on the first stage.
As well as being in prime position to win his first rally of the season, and the eighth of his career, Hirvonen also has the incentive of closing to seven points of Loeb at the top of the championship standings. It is also looking as if it is going to be a good rally for Hirvonen's teammate, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, who is on target for his best finish in the World Rally Championship as he lies in seventh spot, 6-09.4 behind Hirvonen.
Hirvonen had started yesterday's leg two in front, and the race stayed that way with the Finn surviving a day of attrition that saw all of his major rivals suffer problems. Loeb had been looking to put pressure on Hirvonen, but the Frenchman's hopes were wrecked after he hit a rock on stage seven, which caused his Citroen car to roll multiple times, forcing him to retire for the first time this season.
Loeb said: "It was my fault. It happened after I went round a high-speed right-hand corner, I was bit too sideways then the hit a big stone with the left-hand front wheel and that sent the car into the air. The car rolled over five or six times." Suspension problems curtailed the victory hopes of Loeb's teammate Dani Sordo two stages later, when he was running second, and he finished the day in 17th.
The Citroen privateer Petter Solberg had been pushing Hirvonen hard for much of the day and he had closed to within 21 seconds of him, but on the final stage of the day he was forced to retire after part of his suspension broke through and punctured his bonnet. The Citroen Junior driver Ogier inherited second but is unlikely to threaten Hirvonen in today's final five stages of the event. Hirvonen's teammate Jari-Matti Latvala bounced back from a poor first day - he had dropped from first to 11th - to move up to third place after showing good pace as those ahead of him hit trouble. The Finn set two fastest stage times to move to 2-44.2 of Hirvonen.
Al Qassimi drove sensibly for much of the day in the tough terrain and his cautious approach was rewarded as he moved up from eighth overnight to be on for his best career result. The Emirati has already finished eighth three times this season in Ireland, Cyprus and Portugal. "It is really tough out there, the cars are taking a huge battering," said the Emirati driver after yesterday morning's stages.
"Concentration is everything - we cannot push the car too much on this surface, we must be sensible, take our time, and not make many mistakes. "With Loeb crashing out this morning, it is easy to see how quickly things can change." firstname.lastname@example.org