Hirvonen poised to win Norway Rally Seventy of the 74 original starters left Hamar Saturday morning for the second leg of this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship, with 15 of those competing under SupeRally regulations after retiring yesterday. Drivers face six speed tests east and north of the town covering 115.79km, including a short final stage through parkland in Hamar itself.
The action began with the monster 44.28km Elverum test, one of the longest special stages of the season. Temperatures were again relatively mild for a Scandinavian winter but several centimeters of snow fell overnight to leave a liberal covering on the road surface. Overnight leaders Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and second-placed Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen opted for long 7mm studs in the BFGoodrich tires fitted to their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars.
BP-Ford World Rally Team driver Hirvonen was fastest through Elverum, 5.1sec quicker than Grönholm and 14.2sec faster than third-placed Sébastien Loeb. The 26-year-old Finn was then third on the 12.71km Terningmoen, less than a second behind Grönholm who was 3.5sec behind stage winner Loeb. As the cars returned to service in Hamar, Hirvonen had extended his overnight lead over Grönholm to 19.7sec and the 39-year-old Finn had widened his advantage over Loeb to 7.3sec.
"There was a huge amount of snow in both stages and to try to drive flat out in those conditions wasn't easy," said Hirvonen. "I knew that everyone would attack in the long stage so I did the same and it worked. In the next stage I drove more cautiously because there was more snow. In this weather the clear line is narrow and to slide off that means I am in the fresh snow and losing time. It looks as though conditions will remain difficult all day."
"A lead of 19sec isn't enough to relax and I still need to attack. I won't feel really confident unless I can have a lead of 30sec and it would be great to take that kind of advantage into the final leg tomorrow," added Hirvonen.
Grönholm admitted the snow made life tough. "I was cautious with the pace notes but everything felt more comfortable than yesterday. The long stage was incredible because there was only one clear line to follow in the snow. My aim remains the same – to catch Mikko but that isn't easy," he said.
Top 10 leaderboard after Stage 17:
Pos Driver Make Time
1. Hirvonen Ford 3:03:57.8
2. Gronholm Ford + 18.4
3. Solberg Ford + 3:48.5
4. Solberg Subaru + 4:04.5
5. Latvala Ford + 5:21.7
6. Stohl Citroen + 6:40.8
7. Galli Citroen + 6:53.5
8. Pons Mitsubishi + 8:41.4
9. Carlsson Citroen + 8:48.8
10. Kopecky Skoda + 10:53.6