Rally Finland got underway this afternoon with the qualifying stage. Sébastien Loeb set the fastest time, whilst Mikko Hirvonen finished in third position. The Citroën Total World Rally Team drivers will start from 10th and 12th places tomorrow.
As has often been the case this season, rain was once again a factor in the World Rally Championship. A heavy shower hit the service park at Jyväskylä Paviljonki just before the crews set off for the Ruuhimäki stage. Most competitors managed to complete one run in dry conditions, but then a violent hailstorm soaked the 4,620 metre-long route. After the two free practice runs, Sébastien Loeb had already set the fastest time, ahead of Novikov, Rantanen and Mikko Hirvonen.
Although the sun was out again as qualifying began, the road surface remained muddy in most places. Sébastien Loeb confirmed his good form, taking ‘pole position’ by over half a second from Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen. “I don’t feel starting in first position for the qualifying stage gave me a decisive advantage, since Latvala set the second best time and he started from sixth”, noted Seb. “It does show that the DS3 WRC can work very well on this surface. However, this result means I’ll have to choose my starting position before my rivals. With the weather being rather unpredictable, as has often been the case this season, it won’t be easy.”
After taking third place, Mikko Hirvonen was all smiles at the prospect of starting his home rally: “Today was pretty unusual, with reconnaissance in the morning and qualifying made difficult with the rain. But I am happy, especially because I know that I have a perfect car. We did some very good testing last weekend and my confidence levels are very high. It’s true that there is a lot of expectation for Rally Finland, but I don’t feel particularly under pressure, if anything, quite the opposite.”
Thierry Neuville had a more complicated day on his first outing at this legendary rally. Caught out by the mud on his second run in free practice, the Citroën Junior WRT struggled to go for it in qualifying. “I’m not pleased to have finished eighth but I’ll put it behind me and concentrate on the race now. Taking part in my first Rally Finland in a WRC won’t be easy, but I’ll adapt my pace to my feeling for the conditions as I go. That worked well at Rally Estonia, so I hope to adopt the same approach here.”
In his first experience behind the wheel of a DS3 WRC, Chris Atkinson set the ninth fastest time after stalling at the start: “I think I‘ll be able to go quicker in the rally! I am really pleased to be back with Citroën for this event. The DS3 is without a doubt the best car I’ve ever driven, but I can’t say that I’m surprised, because that’s what you’d expect of the world champions! I can’t wait to get started.”
The crews then chose their starting positions for the first leg, which gets underway tomorrow from 5.23pm onwards. Sébastien Loeb opted to start from 10th position, ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala, Mikko Hirvonen (12th), Petter Solberg, Evgeny Novikov, Mads Østberg, Thierry Neuville (16th) and Chris Atkinson (17th).