Jari-Matti Latvala has concluded Saturday's leg on top on Rallye de France, snatching the lead from Dani Sordo in the final stage.
Latvala and Sordo went into the short 4.65 km Mulhouse test, SS14, split by just 0.6 seconds. However Latvala was fractionally quicker, posting the second best time, 0.5 seconds behind Sebastien Ogier and 1 second up on Dani Sordo, who was fourth fastest. That was sufficient to give Jari-Matti the lead at the end of the second full-day of competition.
“I think this is the closest rally I have ever been involved in. It is incredibly close at the top, with only a few seconds separating the first four – that is really impressive,” Latvala remarked.
“Today's tests were really tricky, but we still coped very well with the changing conditions, did not take too many risks, and made it to the finish without making any mistakes. It is obviously a great feeling to lead the Rally France overnight, but we have not won anything yet.
“We will try to maintain our rhythm and be consistently quick and safe. Tomorrow it will be crucial to choose the right tyres, as the weather forecast is difficult and we have six back-to-back special stages. Anyone who gets the tyre selection wrong, could wave goodbye to any hopes of victory in the morning.
“It will be an exciting final day, that much is certain.”
“It's very close despite the conditions being extreme in places," Sordo added. "It's very exciting to find myself in a four- or five-way fight for the win, even more so than in Germany when there were just two of us on the Saturday evening. I feel ready to carry on in very much the same vein tomorrow.”
Behind the top two, Sebastien Ogier lies third, just 1.5 seconds further back, and determined to try and seal his 2013 WRC title success in style: “That was a virtually perfect day for us. I never thought that we would get back into the race this weekend. The fans can look forward to a real showdown tomorrow. Four drivers within a matter of seconds – it will be a fantastic battle,” said the Frenchman.
“Victory would obviously be the icing on the cake – but the most important thing is that we already have the cake! I felt much better in the car today, and the Polo R WRC worked perfectly in difficult conditions out on the route. Luckily I found my rhythm again, and we also gave it 100 per cent on every stage.”
Further back, Sebastien Loeb lies fourth, 3.5 seconds off Ogier, with Thierry Neuville now fifth following that puncture in SS11, which cost him the lead and has dropped him down and out of contention [see separate story - HERE
"Of course I am disappointed as we were having a really good rally, but these things happen," Neuville said. "We got a puncture after we hit a kerb on SS11. Then we had to drive 18 kilometres with no air in the tyre. It was good that we didn't lose too much time, but unfortunately too much to fight for the victory.
“Tomorrow, we just need to stay on the road and follow the battle in front. I am sure that a lot of things can still happen in the difficult conditions. Like we saw last year, there could be a lot of standing water on these stages so it is not over for sure. It will be difficult to get back on the podium, but as we have seen already this year, nothing is finished until you are at the end of the rally.”
“The rain often began to fall just as we were about to start the stages this afternoon!" Loeb lamented. "And this time, I had trouble with the car understeering quite badly. I pushed as hard as I could, but the young guys are quick and I'm probably paying the price for not having competed in my DS3 WRC in the last few months.
"But I can't complain, it's fantastic for the crowd to see such a close fight and we still have a great chance of winning,” he added.
Evgeny Novikov rounds out the top six, with Mikko Hirvonen, Mads Ostberg, Andreas Mikkelsen and Martin Prokop in positions 7 through to 10.
"It's been an OK day," said Novikov. "We have no need to take any unnecessary risks, so we have just been continuing to build the speed whilst maintaining the same level of confidence. I am quite happy with our driving in these difficult conditions, so it certainly wasn't a bad day by all means.”
In WRC2, Robert Kubica remains on course for victory, 3.5 minutes up on Elfyn Evans, while Quentin Gilbert heads WRC3.
Pontus Tidemand took the JWRC win - his third of the season - and in the process also secured the 2013 Junior title with one round to go.
The event now concludes on Sunday, with six stages on the bill, totally 56.58 competitive kilometres – and all with no service to break them up. SS15, the 14.60 km Vignoble de Cleebourg 1 test, is due to start at 09.23 hours local time [08.23 hours UK time].Rallye de France-Alsace: Overall standings after Stage 14 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 2hr 18m 58.3s
2. Dani Sordo
Abu Dhabi Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00m 00.4s
3. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 01.5s
4. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 05.0s
5. Thierry Neuville
Qatar WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 10.4s
6. Evgeny Novikov
Qatar M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 16.4s
7. Mikko Hirvonen
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +02m 43.1s
8. Mads Ostberg
Qatar M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 57.2s
9. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +03m 19.2s
10. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05m 25.2s
11. Robert Kubica
Citroen DS3 RRC +07m 47.6s
12. Lionel Baud
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +09m 32.1s
13. Romain Dumas
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +09m 38.2s
14. Elfyn Evans
Qatar M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +11m 17.7s
15. Quentin Gilbert
Citroen DS3 R3T +16m 01.4s
16. Sebastien Chardonnet
Citroen DS3 R3T +16m 24.4s
WRC3Rallye de France-Alsace: Power Stage / SS1 (Top 3):
1. Dani Sordo
Abu Dhabi Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 03m 20.8s
2. Thierry Neuville
Qatar WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 00.7s
3. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 00.8s
MNOTE: Top three finishers in Power Stage are awarded bonus points. 1st = 3 points; 2nd = 2 points; 3rd = 1 pointWRC2 standings after Stage 14 (Top 3):
1. Robert Kubica
Citroen DS3 RRC 2h 26m 45.9s
2. Elfyn Evans
Qatar M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +03m 30.1s
3. Rashid Al-Ketbi
Ford Fiesta R5 +13m 16.5s
WRC2WRC3 standings after Stage 14 (Top 3):
1. Quentin Gilbert
Citroen DS3 R3T 2h 34m 59.7s
2. Sebastien Chardonnet
Citroen DS3 R3T +00m 23.0s
3. Keith Cronin
Citroen DS3 R3T +01m 46.7s
WRC3JWRC standings after Stage 14
1. Pontus Tidemand
Ford Fiesta R2 2h 41m 37.4s
2. Hugo Arellano
Ford Fiesta R2 +00m 42.3s
3. Yeray Lemes
Ford Fiesta R2 +01m 10.6s
4. Marius Aasen
Ford Fiesta R2 +01m 15.8s
5. Martin Koci
Ford Fiesta R2 +01m 54.2s
6. Michael Burri
Ford Fiesta R2 +02m 31.4s
7. Murat Bostanci
Ford Fiesta R2 +04m 06.3s
8. Sander Parn
Ford Fiesta R2 +04m 38.3s
9. Niko Nieminen
Ford Fiesta R2 +06m 39.2s
SS2. Tomas Kostka
Citroen DS3 WRC Mechanical
*denotes re-started under the Rally 2 regulations;
M denotes Manufacturer entry;
# JWRC event concluded after Saturday's stages;all times unofficial