Volkswagen's Sebastien Ogier has extended his lead on Rally Poland this afternoon and will now go into the final day with a very comfortable advantage.
Ogier went into the repeat loop with a 19-second margin over team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen and he inched further and further ahead, gaining 0.3 seconds in SS16, 3.5 seconds in SS17 and 3.2 seconds in SS18.
He then gained a massive 33.7 seconds in SS19 when Mikkelsen was slowed by brake problems, before finishing with his fifth stage win of the day in SS20 - the short 2.50 km Mikolajki Arena super special.
The Frenchman now looks well placed to take his fifth win of WRC 2014, a result that will extend his 33 point lead in the Drivers' Championship.
“The day began with a bit of a scare on a long stretch during the second stage. But after that, it was a perfect day for me and Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver]. We managed to extend our lead in each stage and we now have a good buffer, among other things because my teammate Andreas Mikkelsen was obviously having some difficulties towards the end,” Ogier remarked.
“But there are still just under 50 kilometres to go. And if it rains overnight, the conditions on the final day could be very difficult. All we have to do is make it to the finishing line without any major mishaps. It's essential that we hit the right rhythm very quickly tomorrow morning. Fortunately, we are now in a position where we no longer have to risk everything.”
Ogier had started the leg just 0.9 seconds up on Mikkelsen. However while Mikkelsen had the edge in the opening test, he then fell back in SS12, crucially losing over 10 seconds when he made a mistake in a corner and couldn't find reverse. That seemed to unnerve the Norwegian, and it affected his rhythm in the following stages before the mid-day halt – and he lost 4.1 seconds in SS13, 2.5 seconds in SS14 and 2.3 in SS15 – all three tests won by Ogier.
“Today actually started quite well for us,” said Mikkelsen. “We had just reduced our teammate Sebastien Ogier's minimal lead on us when I made a mistake during the second special stage. I flew across a crossing while driving on cobblestones, so I had to reverse, which cost me ten seconds. I then made another two minor mistakes, which cost me some more time. From then on, I had lost my rhythm.
“We also experienced a few problems with the brakes during the second run of the longest stage, so we slipped back even further. Sebastien's time lead is now way too big for us to close the gap on the basis of our performance alone. He is, after all, the reigning world champion and he is using the same materials as us. We now want to continue to control our pace and secure second place. It would be a fantastic result for us to finish Rally Poland up on the podium.”
Thierry Neuville meanwhile is now third for Hyundai. The Belgian moved ahead of team-mate Juho Hanninen, who had steering issues on the second loop, in SS18.
“We have had a much better feeling today. We changed the brake system after the issue yesterday and we have found a good set-up and balance. That allowed me to push and set quick stage times,” Neubville noted.
“We were still careful in some places but we have made up important positions and it's good to be in the fight for a podium. It was fun to be part of a close battle with Hirvonen which certainly spiced up the afternoon! The stage win this afternoon showed our potential so I hope we can continue with that rhythm and pace for tomorrow's final stages, and see where we end up!”
Mikko Hirvonen also overhauled Hanninen, getting in front in his M-Sport WRT Fiesta RS WRC in SS19. Hanninen is now 14 seconds adrift in P5.
“I'm disappointed with today. We had some issues this morning, especially in the long Goldap stage. I have had to try and adapt my driving and to find a better rhythm because I have not been satisfied,” Hanninen explained. “The door kept opening in SS14 and smoke was coming into the car so the mechanics needed to look at that during lunchtime service. It was a shame there was not more time because we couldn't cure a steering issue which then hampered my afternoon.
“The fast sections were fine but I did not have the confidence in the slower parts. I just wasn't able to do anything better. I gave it everything. Still, we are in the top six and we will look to make up ground tomorrow.”
Behind, Jari-Matti Latvala lies sixth, having lost time after he hit a stone and damaged the front suspension on his Polo R WRC in SS14. He then tried to strap it back in place for SS15, but the fix failed and he lost over 1.5 minutes. The Finn charged back though on the repeats and was quickest in the final two 'proper' stages, leaving him just 0.4 seconds off Hanninen.
“I did everything I could this afternoon and I really attacked. We lost a lot of time during the first run because of our damaged damper, so after that we went all out to attack! Two special stage wins really prove what a fantastic job our mechanics did during the lunchtime service – our Polo R WRC was driving like a dream after that,” Latvala said.
“We have now made good a lot of ground on the teams in front of us and we will try to maintain our high pace until we cross the finishing line. Every single point counts in the world championship.”
Hayden Paddon, Henning Solberg, Kris Meeke and Martin Prokop hold positions 7 through to 10. Meeke would have been higher, but a puncture in SS14 lost him over 2 minutes.
SS14 - the first-run through the 35.17 km Goldap test - caused trouble for a number of runners, not least Mads Ostberg and Elfyn Evans with both retiring at the same spot near the finish after hitting a rock. Ostberg rolled out in his Citroen, while Evans damaged a lower front suspension link.
Former F1 driver Robert Kubica then joined them on the sidelines, when he knocked off a wheel in SS17. The Pole had been running sixth on his home event.
“On SS17 I turned into a corner a bit too late after a crest. It was narrow and as I exited the corner I went a bit too wide onto the grass where we hit something with the rear,” Kubica recalled. “I was hoping we only had a puncture but on the next crest I realised the wheel was damaged. We went off into a bank and hit another rock, this time with the front.
“The [second] hit was so hard that it damaged the bumper. Oil spilled onto the brake disc and that started a small fire. We stopped immediately and to put it out. It has been a very tricky day for us. When we were staying on the road it was fun to drive but lately we have been haunted by hidden stones.”
It has yet to be confirmed if Kubica and Evans will be able to re-start on Sunday under Rally 2. However, Ostberg is definitely out as his car suffered damage to the roll cage.
In WRC2, Ott Tanak is now over a minute up on his Drive DMACK team-mate, Jari Ketomaa. Tanak was in a class of his own all day, winning four of the five stages on the opening loop, and four more this afternoon. Yazeed Al-Rajhi completes the class podium, after Martin Kangur lost a wheel in SS16 and retired.
Rally Poland now concludes on Sunday with four stages on the bill, covering 49.18 competitive kilometres.
SS21, the 14.54 km Milki 2 test, is scheduled to start at 08.15 hours local time [07.15 hours UK time].
Rally Poland: Overall standings after Stage 20 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 2hours 08m 47.3s M
2. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +01m 01.8s M
3. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +02m 20.5s M
4. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 31.2s M
5. Juho Hanninen Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +02m 45.2s M
6. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +02m 45.6s M
7. Hayden Paddon Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +04m 10.3s M
8. Henning Solberg Adapta Motorsport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +04m 29.5s
9. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +04m 33.0s M
10. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05m 18.6s M
11. Ott Tanak Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +06m 53.6s WRC2
12. Jari Ketomaa Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +08m 22.7s WRC2
13. Yazeed Al-Rajhi Ford Fiesta RRC +10m 24.2s WRC2
WRC2 standings after Stage 20 (Top 3):
1. Ott Tanak Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 2hrs 15m 40.9s WRC2
2. Jari Ketomaa Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +01m 29.1s WRC2
3. Yazeed Al-Rajhi Ford Fiesta RRC +03m 31.2s WRC2
SS5/6. Michal Solowow Ford Fiesta RS WRC Mechanical
SS9. Karl Kruuda Peugeot 208 T16 Rolled WRC2
SS13. Krzysztof Holowczyc Lotto Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC Accident
SS14. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Went off M
SS14. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Suspension damage M
SS16. Martin Kangur Ford Fiesta S2000 Lost a wheel WRC2
SS17. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Knocked off a wheel M
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial