Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen made a good start to Rally Sweden and after day one, disputed for the most part in Norway, are now well-placed to fight for the win. The rally’s two-time winners lie second, 16.8s behind the leader.
Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena had a less successful day, losing two minutes after sliding off the road and into a snow bank. Back in seventh, the eight-time World Champions will now aim to pick up as many points as possible.
Prior to tackling the ‘real’ special stages, the rally began on Thursday evening with the super special stage at Karlstad racecourse. And before that, the crews had to define their starting positions for day one, the owner of the best time in the qualifying stage having first choice, and so on. Keen to drive on as “clean” a line as possible, Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb chose to start in 18th and 19th positions respectively.
The cars left parc fermé at 5am to head for the Hagfors service park. The day did not get off to a good start for Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, who picked up a ten-second penalty. “We arrived at the control point a minute late because the team had to make some last-minute changes to the set-up. It’s a shame because the differences in the times are always very small here,” explained Seb.
Except for the first few kilometres of SS2, the morning’s stages were disputed within Norway. On SS3, Sébastien Loeb set his first fastest stage time of the rally. And then Mikko Hirvonen got into his stride: the Finn set the fastest times on Kirkener and Finnskogen (SS4 and SS5), enabling him to grab the lead at the half-way stage of day one. “It’s a good start, although I think I can go even faster. I am still a little unsure when it comes to braking,” explained Mikko at the Kongsvinger remote service park.
In fourth position, 12s adrift of his team-mate, Sébastien Loeb moved up another place after he set his second fastest stage time of the day on Opaker 2 (SS6). But his hopes of winning the rally evaporated a few hundred metres after the start of Kirkener 2: “I was caught out when I got a little bit too sideways into a left-hand bend, which lead onto a right-hand hairpin. I couldn‘t manage to turn the car and slid off, ending up stuck in a snow bank. Some spectators came to push us back onto the road, but we lost almost two minutes. I’m out of the running for a place on the podium; we now have to make sure we make it to the end and pick up as many points as possible.”
Despite winning the Kirkener stage again, Mikko Hirvonen could not hold off the in-form Jari-Matti Latvala in the afternoon. Forced to back off after his tyres lost many of their studs, the Citroën Total World Rally Team admitted he felt somewhat powerless: “The car was sliding so much that I couldn’t push. We were so close today that it is frustrating to lose so much time. Everything is still to play for, however. I’ll be pushing hard tomorrow to try and catch Jari-Matti.”
“With five fastest times in the eight “real” stages, my overriding sense is that we have been quick today,” emphasized Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “But the rally won’t be decided by out-and-out speed alone. We saw on the last stage how important good tyre management can be. Mikko thinks he has a good chance of winning and we’ll be behind him tomorrow. Seb, on the other hand, has been forced to give up his hopes of victory after his minor but costly error. Thierry Neuville met our expectations today; he is learning little by little and we saw that he is capable of upping the pace when the surface is a little easier. The situation is the same for Nasser Al-Attiyah. He knows how difficult this rally is, but he is determined to make it to the end so he can learn as much as possible about how the DS3 WRC works.”