One of the undisputed aspects of Sébastien Loeb talent is his ability to quickly strike a fine balance between outright speed and mechanical sympathy, and then to stick to his chosen rhythm with metronome-like consistency. He provided further evidence of this ability in the opening group of stages of Leg 2 of Rally Finland. When he started out from Jyväskylä this morning, he enjoyed a 38 second advantage over the Ford Puma of François Duval. Three stages later, after controlling his pace to perfection, his cushion over the Belgian driver was… 39 seconds.
The Saxo's domination of the leaderboard was however interrupted for two stages when Sébastien and Daniel incurred a 1 minute penalty for early arrival at the start of SS13 which dropped them to second place, 14 seconds behind the Puma. Co-driver Daniel Elena explained what happened: "We entered the control on our ideal time, I handed my time-card over on our minute, with a safety margin of a few seconds as usual. However, the marshal said that the previous minute had not yet elapsed."
The Saxo crew's reaction to this blow was not long in coming. "I pushed hard over the next three stages," admitted Sébastien on his return to the Halli service park. The Frenchman was indeed fastest on those three tests and his quicker pace saw the Citroën to regain the lead by a margin of 8 seconds by the end of SS15. Yet the duel was back on and Duval, now back in the running, responded with a fastest time on the long Ouninpohja test, reducing the gap to 5 seconds. "Ouninpohja is probably the most difficult stage of the rally," commented Sébastien. "I preferred to take it easy; to drive quickly but without taking any risks."
In the following stage, on the other hand, the Citroën driver upped his pace once more, pulling out a further 11 seconds over his talented chaser to finish the day with a cushion of more than 17 seconds after the short Jyväskylä super-special.
Andrea Dallavilla (Fiat Punto) is currently in third position and looking to collect the four points that go with that position at the finish, but François Duval has by no means given up in his bid to snatch victory from Loeb. And with Sunday's programme comprising three long and particularly challenging stages, the suspense promises to last all the way to the flag…
The partners of Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena in their "Super 1600" programme are Champeau, Total and Michelin.