LOEB, HIRVONEN AND CITROEN STAND UNITED
| Rally of New Zealand | Day 2
First and second in Rally New Zealand since SS2, the Citroën Total World Rally Team’s DS3 WRCs continued to lead the race throughout Saturday’s leg. Separated by just 7.5s after 352 kilometres of timed stages, the Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen crews are well placed to make it three one-two finishes in a row for Citroën.
Day two of Rally New Zealand began with a long road section to the north. Concentrated on roads between the Wairoa River and Whangarei harbour, the day’s seven stages totalled 143 kilometres. Like Friday, the midday service period was limited to tyre changes and any brief repairs that could be done in the fifteen minutes available. As the rainfall of the last few days had left the stages damp, tyre choice was crucial when the drivers left Auckland. Mikko Hirvonen, like most of the drivers, opted for five hard Michelin Latitude Cross tyres. Sébastien Loeb chose to fit his car with two hard tyres at the front, two soft tyres at the rear, and take two hard tyres as spares.
All eyes were on Petter Solberg, who chose to go with five soft tyres. Despite winning SS9, the Norwegian was unable to make up a significant amount of ground on the two Citroëns during the morning. Sébastien Loeb was quicker than Mikko on the first two stages, extending his lead to 8.5s after SS10. Mikko Hirvonen eroded most of Seb’s lead, however, on ‘Girls High School 1’ (SS11): as the crews reached Whangarei for the midday service, the Finn trailed his team-mate by just 1.7s! “This stage is among my two or three favourites,” confirmed Mikko. “I pushed without making any mistakes; I don’t think I could have gone any quicker. I’m really enjoying scrapping with Seb. We are having a lot of fun on these fantastic roads.”
“Once again, Mikko was very quick in the muddier sections and it was too late to react when I realised my pace wasn’t aggressive enough,” admitted Seb. “But this was a battle between team-mates, so I wasn’t going to run the risk of making a mistake by being over-zealous!”
All the drivers fitted hard tyres for the afternoon loop, made up of four stages. With two stage wins on SS12 and SS13, Sébastien Loeb put a little breathing space between himself and Mikko Hirvonen. He also went quicker than his team-mate on SS14, but Mikko refused to let anyone else claim the stage win on ‘Girls High School 2’. The two DS3 WRCs arrived back in Auckland with just 6.4s between them. “What a great battle today!” beamed Mikko. “It’s fantastic to be able to push hard on such beautiful roads in a fast and reliable car. Once again, we are perfectly placed to secure a one-two for Citroën. That would be the perfect outcome.”
“Mikko just kept pushing, yesterday and today,” added Seb. “It was difficult this afternoon, it was very slippery because there was some rain but we were driving on hard tyres. But we managed to stay on the road and maintain a comfortable lead over Petter Solberg. The final day looks like it will be exciting!”
“I had decided to let our drivers battle it out for first place, because there was a real risk that Petter Solberg might make a comeback,” explained Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “He didn’t make the most of his tyre choice, however, and the gap settled at around one and half minutes. Although the final leg only features 60km of timed stages, we won’t get carried away. The weather could change again, and tyre choice might once more become very important. I have therefore asked our drivers to make sure of the one-two finish.”