Volkswagen WRC driver Jari-Matti Latvala won three of the four stages and built a good lead this afternoon on Rally Italia Sardegna.
Latvala went into the repeat loop just 2.2 seconds up on Mads Ostberg, but immediately showed who was boss, going quickest in SS6, while his Norwegian rival was only fourth, 9.4 seconds slower. Latvala then went quickest again in SS7 to stretch his advantage to 16.9 seconds. The Finn then had to settle for second in SS8, but ended the loop as he had started it, with another fastest time in SS9.
Latvala will now take a 22.4 second lead into Saturday's second full day of competition and other than a brake problem this morning in SS2 it has been relatively plain sailing for the Finn.
“It was a very good first day for us, and was great fun – no question,” said Latvala. “Before the rally I would never have expected to be leading today, as our early start position [second on the road] was far from an advantage. We had a soft brake pedal for a while in the morning [too], but were able to solve that and get through the day without any problems.
“Our lead is pleasing, as it is crystal clear that our team-mates will push hard tomorrow and do their best to catch us. We have to stay cool and continue with the same pace and in the same manner.”
Sebastian Ogier meanwhile heads the chasing pack, despite losing big chunks of time this morning as he had to run first and sweep the roads for those behind. On the second runs though, that was less of an issue and he proceeded to haul himself back into contention, moving from P6 to P4 in SS6, before gaining third in SS8 and then second in SS9, when he ousted Ostberg.
“The start was even tougher than expected: there was no grip, as the loose sand made the surface extremely slippery. Julien [Ingrassia - my co-driver] and I did everything we could, but in conditions like this you simply have no chance of setting a top time as the first car on the route. As expected, the afternoon's second loop was better, and we made the most of the situation with second place overall. I will obviously push and attack again now tomorrow,” Ogier vowed.
Behind, Ostberg concluded the day 11.3 seconds back in his Citroen DS3 WRC, with Volkswagen Motorsport II pilot Andreas Mikkelsen fourth, just 4 seconds further adrift.
"We knew that the first few stages would be difficult," said Ostberg. "We were fairly cautious to make sure we avoided making any mistakes on the more uneven sections. The other stages went better. I'm very happy to end the day in third position. It is still very tight at the front. It should be a good battle again tomorrow."
"Volkswagen had the pleasant problem of being first, second and third onto the route today. That is a definite handicap with the amount of loose gravel there is, and all those starting after us had better conditions,” Mikkelsen added. "However, that is part of the sport, and we tried to make the most of the situation. I think we did that, and we now find ourselves well placed for the coming days.
"It was also my first full day of the rally with Ola Floene at my side as co-drive . The communication was perfect from the outset and Ola did a perfect job. It is great that Norwegian is the 'official language' again in our cockpit.
"Apropos Norway: we have our sights set now on winning the all-Norwegian duel with Mads Ostberg now."
Further back former Formula 1 star Robert Kubica holds fifth in his M-Sport Fiesta RS WRC and the Pole set some very good times, going second quickest in SS5 and third in SS3 and SS9.
"It's been a good day," said Kubica. "It was quite tricky in the morning as the stage was really slippery but I think that we settled into a good rhythm. We were able to show some good pace on the stages that were familiar to me from last year, and we have had a clean run with no big moments.
"There is still a long way to go, but for the moment, it is going well for us and I've been happy with the pace and the progress we have made. It's another positive step forward and we just need to continue like this."
Elfyn Evans is next up, 22.4 second shy of the sister car, and one place ahead of Martin Prokop. Prokop was an impressive third overall after the morning loop, but fell back this afternoon. He also had a lucky escape in SS9 – the final test of the day – when he went off into a ditch.
Of the rest, Henning Solberg completes the top eight, with WRC2 runners Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Nasser Al-Attiyah ninth and tenth. Karl Kruuda had been on top in the support class, but he stopped in SS9. Al-Rajhi thus inherited the lead and will take a 4.1 second cushion into day two. Bernardo Sousa is third in class - and 13th overall, behind Hyundai Motorsport N driver Hayden Paddon and Citroen third driver Khalid Al Qassimi in 11th and 12th.
In terms of retirements, Mikko Hirvonen was the first major scalp this morning, stopping between SS3 and SS4 when his car caught fire
. Hirvonen and co-driver Lehtinen both escaped unharmed, but the car was completely burnt out. It is not yet known what caused it.
More drama then followed in SS5, with Thierry Neuville, who at this point was leading, stopping just 4 kilometres in due to a suspension problem. The Belgian eventually finished the test, but he lost over 23 minutes and ends the day well down the order. Team-mate Juho Hanninen also went out in that test when he rolled his i20 WRC 5.5 kilometres from the end.
Hanninen had been second, just 2.9 seconds behind Neuville. Kris Meeke was forced out in SS5 as well, due to mechanical problems. In the previous test a battery warning light came on and he lost power near the end.
The event now continues on Saturday with competitors facing just two stages - both to be run twice, but one (SS11 and SS13) is the very long 59.13 km Monte Lerno test. In total the day includes 156.80 competitive kilometres.
SS10, the 19.27 km Monte Olia 1 test, is due to start at 09.18 hours local time [8.18 hours UK time].
Rally Italia Sardegna: Overall standings after Stage 9 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1hour 49m 09.5s
2. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 22.4s
3. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 33.7s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 37.7s
5. Robert Kubica
RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 56.9s
6. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 19.3s
7. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 29.0s
8. Henning Solberg
Adapta Motorsport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 36.9s
9. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +05m 15.8s
10. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Qatar Rally Team Ford Fiesta RRC +05m 19.9s
11. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +05m 31.3s
12. Khalid Al Qassimi
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +05m 40.5s
13. Bernardo Sousa
Ford Fiesta RRC +06m 55.7s
WRC2 standings after Stage 9 (Top 3):
1. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC 1hr 54m 25.3s
2. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Qatar Rally Team Ford Fiesta RRC +00m 04.1s
3. Bernardo Sousa
Ford Fiesta RRC +01m 39.9s
SS3/SS4. Mikko Hirvonen
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Engine
SS5. Juho Hanninen
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC Rolled
SS5. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Unknown
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial