CARDIFF, WALES // Mikko Hirvonen's hopes of claiming a maiden World Rally Championship title hang by a thread going into today's final four stages of the season. The Finnish BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver led Serbastien Loeb, title winner for the last five years, going into this weekend's Rally GB but now trails him over the water-logged roads of south Wales.
If the Frenchman finishes ahead of Hirvonen he will keep his crown. Having won four of yesterday's six stages to build a sizeable 30.2sec overnight lead, the omens look good on the Frenchman overhauling a championship deficit - he trails Hirvonen by a single point in his drivers' standings - and ending his Finnish rival's dreams of a maiden world title. With only two loops of the 17.41km Port Talbot and 22.51km Rheola stages - Loeb won all four runs in last year's corresponding event - remaining in the WRC curtain call, not even the handicap of being the first car on the road is hindering the Citroen driver's bid to retain his crown.
"I had always planned to push hard and [yesterday] was really, really good - I was flat-out," said Loeb. "The rain made the roads good for me, I had plenty of grip, but Mikko was faster in the afternoon, so I needed to push hard to keep it going." With 80 kilometres of competitive stages on today's agenda, Ford team director Malcolm Wilson - who has seen drive shaft problem blight his team's progress this weekend - is not prepared to throw in the towel on Hirvonen's title bid.
The Englishman insisted anything could happen in the season finale's final furlong, and reiterated the title race is far from finished. "Nothing is over yet and [today] is a really long day," he said. "With 80 kilometres of stages and no opportunities for service, reliability will be all important. "It is a tricky day and with the conditions as treacherous as they have been, anything can happen. It may sound like a cliche, but if rally has taught me anything, it is to expect the unexpected," added Wilson.
Realistic of the task facing him as he looks to rein in the five-time world champion today, Hirvonen, nonetheless, echoed the optimism of his team boss after returning the Cardiff rally base last night. "The difference is big now and I don't know if there are enough kilometres left to take that time back," he said. "But it's not over yet and the final day will be flat-out." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Finn has mountain to climb, s10