The tarmac experts come to the fore!

After the first leg was largely contested on muddy gravel, Rally de Espana continued today on Catalonia’s fast, wide roads. Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena grabbed the lead on the second stage of the day before going on to build a substantial lead of close to half a minute over their rivals.

Saturday was also a good day for Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who climbed to third in the overall standings.

After keeping out of trouble in the tricky conditions on day one, the Citroën Total World Rally Team drivers were determined to make the most of today’s leg on tarmac to improve their positions. With wet conditions affecting pretty much the entire course, the crews opted to start on soft Michelin Pilot Sport tyres. However, sensing there was a good chance the roads would dry out, Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen took two hard tyres as spares.

Sébastien Loeb went on the attack on El Priorat which, at 46 kilometres, is the rally’s longest stage, whilst leader Mads Østberg went off the road. By winning the stage, the nine-time World Champion* took over as leader. After repeating the feat on SS9, he made it to the midday service in Salou with a lead just shy of twenty seconds over Jari-Matti Latvala: “I was struggling a bit on SES7. I didn’t feel very confident about the set-up that we had chosen and the tyres weren‘t really getting up to temperature. I got back things back on track after that, but I can’t take it easy. It’s still pretty close!”

Still lying fourth at this stage of the rally, Mikko Hirvonen was also positive about these first few stages on tarmac: “Seb and Jari-Matti were a little bit quicker than me, but it wasn’t too bad. The car was working well, I just lacked a little bit of confidence in the wettest sections. We’re not very far behind Østberg. I’m going to try and grab third place on the second run.”

As the sun had come out again on the Costa Daurada, the DS3 WRCs switched to hard tyres for the second loop. In going faster than Latvala on the day’s final three stages, Sébastien Loeb driver increased his lead little by little. “The roads were dry and not that uneven compared to this morning, so it was fun to drive in conditions like that,” confirmed Seb. “I drove well and tried to avoid picking up a puncture. With our little lead, we can be optimistic about our chances on the last day.”

As he had planned, Mikko Hirvonen moved up into third place after the El Priorat stage. With Ott Tänak trailing him by around fifteen seconds, the Finn expects to have a fight on his hand on the final day: “It’s good; I’m pleased with my performance today, but I always want more. I must keep improving to have a chance of fighting for the stage wins. In any case, we’ll have to keep pushing tomorrow…”

“Overall, it has been a positive day for us, as Seb and Mikko have both moved up in the standings,” emphasized Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “Like yesterday, we made the right tyre choices and our crews have produced flawless performances on the stages. We’re in good shape, but the gaps are still pretty small. We’ll have to stay focussed right to the end if we are to finish the season in style!”

NEUVILLE ALL SMILES AGAIN

Disappointed after retiring yesterday on SS2, Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul were back in action today under Rally2 regulations. After making hard work of this morning’s stages, the Citroën Junior World Rally Team crew improved as the afternoon progressed. “The first loop was difficult, because I was racing on these stages for the first time in wet conditions, whilst also having to contend with a brake problem. I didn’t take any risks but we were able to check our pace notes. On the second runs, we were close to the top times and that’s the main thing.”

Seventh after day one, Hans Weijs Jr. moved ahead of Craig Breen on the first stage of the day. Somewhat isolated in the overall standings, the Dutchman continued to get to grips with the DS3 WRC whilst gradually narrowing the gap between his times and those of the leading drivers.

* Subject to publication of the official results by the FIA.

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