Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala remains in the lead on Rally Finland at the conclusion of day three, although his cushion is down to just 3.4 seconds.
Latvala dominated this morning, winning four of the five stages to increase his advantage to almost 30 seconds over team-mate, Sebastien Ogier.
He was then quickest again in SS19, the first test after the mid-day halt, to stretch his lead to 31.1 seconds.
However, the Finn ran into problems in the next stage, the repeat run through the 21.93 km Jukojarvi test, when he hit “a massive hole” and damaged the brakes on his Polo R WRC. Latvala lost 11 seconds as a result and while he made repairs before the remaining three tests, he was reduced to three brakes calipers, as he couldn't fix the right front. That meant he lost more time in SS21, SS22 and SS23, but he just did enough to cling onto the lead, albeit with his advantage now decimated.
“We are only just in the lead, but the main thing is we are still in the lead. We can go to service now and have the car repaired and we will be ready for the fight again tomorrow,” Latvala said after SS23. “I don't care about the championship, I came here to win Rally Finland so that's what we will do. Tomorrow's stages will be fresh and I really enjoy them, so we're looking forward to it."
Speaking in the end of day service, Latvala added: “Things can go like clockwork if you have faith in your car, the set-up and your own driving style. And that's exactly what happened to me today. I felt very at ease and comfortable in the car, and we had a great rhythm.
“My plan for today was to take some time off Kris Meeke and my teammate Sebastien Ogier here and there, in order not to be under too much pressure. This plan panned out this morning in particular. But we had a bit of a scare in the afternoon during the second run of the Jukojärvi stage when we hit a large pothole, which gave us some braking problems, meaning we had to ease off the accelerator a little.
“We didn't have any braking power on the front right-hand wheel for the last 30 kilometres of the day. Even so, we managed to hold on to our lead. It was hard work today, and it won't be easy to defend our lead all the way to the finishing line tomorrow. But I still have my sights set on winning.”
Ogier won all four stages after Latvala's problems, and now is well in with a chance of claiming the victory.
“It is bad luck for Latvala and I cannot smile about his situation,” said the Frenchman. “I cannot enjoy what happens now but it makes the end of the rally tomorrow really interesting...”
Kris Meeke meanwhile is on course for the final place on the podium in his Citroen DS3 WRC, 29 seconds back and 48.4 seconds ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen in fourth in the Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC.
“A World Champion on full attack was always going to be difficult to fight,” said Meeke, who had been second last night, 1.6 seconds up on Ogier. “I'm happy with my times and I've learnt a lot. I'll have the best view in the house watching these boys [Latvala and Ogier] fight for the win tomorrow.”
“Today was all about the traditional Rally Finland stages, and I felt very comfortable driving them," Mikkelsen added. "Based on my overall position in the rally, I played it safe today and didn't take any risks.
"I now have a bit of a time buffer over fifth, which means I can tackle the final day of the rally in a controlled manner. Kris Meeke is 48.4 seconds ahead of me, in third place overall. Even if everything goes as normal, it will unfortunately not be possible to close this gap over the remaining 36.60 kilometres.
"So it looks like Ola [Floene - my co-driver] and I will finish in fourth place. If that is the case, we will most definitely be the fastest Norwegians in Rally Finland.”
Behind, Mikko Hirvonen had a rather unspectacular day in his M-Sport WRT Fiesta RS WRC and is now 53.6 seconds off Mikkelsen. The Finn had been right up there after Friday's action, but was unable to do much this morning and then broke a damper in SS20.
“Today wasn't what I was hoping and expecting," Hirvonen admitted. "I really wanted to be in the fight for fourth this morning but I struggled to keep up with the other guys. The car was sliding around too much and I just didn't have the confidence to get the times that I needed.
“Then this afternoon I hit a rock about four kilometres into the Jukojärvi stage [SS20] which damaged the damper and it was difficult after that. There's still one day to go, and in Finland it is never over until it's over. Tomorrow is a new day.”
Hyundai duo Hayden Paddon and Juho Hanninen hold sixth and seventh, split by 28.8 seconds.
“We've had a very good day and have made some really solid improvements as the stages have progressed,” said Paddon. “I lacked a bit of confidence this morning, particularly with the front of the car. On the first two days of this rally, I was focussed on my own driving so today we've been able to look at some set-up adjustments. The team made some changes at lunchtime service and the car responded well in the afternoon loop. I felt comfortable in the car and set some pretty decent stage times.
“I'm obviously pleased to be in the top six but we have three more stages tomorrow so we'll have to push a bit more to defend from Juho, who has also had a good day. The most important thing from my perspective is that I feel we've learned a lot this weekend and I have come on a lot as a driver. We've got to keep moving in this direction.”
“It's been a pretty good day after the difficulties we faced yesterday,” Hanninen added. “This morning's stages were a bit more challenging than I expected with some loose gravel due to our position on the road. I tried to keep my runs as clean as possible and it was reasonably ok. It was not so easy to find a good rhythm in the slippery conditions but things were better in the afternoon.
“I was perhaps a bit too careful on occasions given the increased grip levels but we had some decent stage times and I had a good feeling with the Hyundai i20 WRC car. We are involved in a close battle for sixth place with Hayden, which is fun, so I will do all I can to reduce the gap tomorrow. We have just three stages left but it promises to be another enjoyable today in front of some fantastic local supporters!”
Elfyn Evans holds eighth, while Craig Breen and Henning Solberg round out the top-ten, all in Fiesta RS WRCs.
“This morning was really positive with some more good progress but on SS20 we hit a big hole and got a puncture," Evans said. "From there on it was simply a case of getting the car back safely as it was really rough out there and we didn't have a second spare.
“It's been a big eye opener coming here in a world rally car for the first time but I think the progression has been good – yesterday and this morning especially. It would have been nice to have continued that this afternoon but we didn't feel we were in the strongest position so decided against it.
“It's been fantastic fun when things have been going right and I almost wish there were an extra couple of stages tomorrow! We'll be a lot better off for the future after the learning process this year and I can't wait to be back when we'll be in a strong position to really push.”
In WRC2, Karl Kruuda leads after Jari Ketomaa had to stop and change a puncture in SS16 this morning. Ketomaa also had issues this afternoon as well, but hung on to second, 21.9 seconds up on team-mate Ott Tanak. Tanak, however, had been 1.5 minutes back at the start of the afternoon loop.
As for retirements, Mads Ostberg was the biggest casualty today. He had to retire in the mid-day service after damaging the rollcage on his DS3 WRC car following a big impact with a rock in SS18. The Citroen man had been running fifth. Ostberg joins the likes of Hyundai's Thierry Neuville and Ford privateer Martin Prokop on the sidelines.
Former F1 driver Robert Kubica re-started on Saturday under Rally 2 and ends the leg classified in 38th place in his M-Sport-run Fiesta RS WRC.
"Today was a good day – a good learning process," said Kubica. "We were the first car on the road so this morning we were cleaning quite a lot as there was a lot of loose gravel on the surface but it was a good experience and I was happy with my driving.
"On the second loop there was still a bit of cleaning but nowhere near as much. The grip levels between the first and second passes were completely different and that was something that I have never experienced before so again that was a good thing to learn.
"There are still some misfires in the engine, but even so I think we have had a very good day and learnt a lot along the way. If we continue tomorrow as we have today then I think we can be happy.”
Rally Finland now concludes on Sunday with three stages on the bill and a competitive distance of just 36.60 km.
SS24, the 6.79 km Ruuhimaki 1 test, is due to start at 09.25 hours local time [07.25 hours UK time].
Rally Finland: Overall standings after Stage 23 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 2hours 40mins 33.6secs M
2. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 03.4s M
3. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 32.4s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +01m 20.8s M
5. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 14.4s M
6. Hayden Paddon Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +03m 36.6s M
7. Juho Hanninen Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +04m 05.4s M
8. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +04m 47.2s M
9. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta RS WRC +08m 33.1s
10. Henning Solberg Ford Fiesta RS WRC +10m 49.8s
11. Karl Kruuda Ford Fiesta S2000 +12m 56.6s WRC2
12. Jari Ketomaa Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +15m 32.5s WRC2
13. Ott Tanak Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +15m 54.4s WRC2
14. Yazeed Al-Rajhi Ford Fiesta RRC +16m 59.7s WRC2
38. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +48m 15.9s M
WRC2 standings after Stage 23 (Top 3):
1. Karl Kruuda Ford Fiesta S2000 2 hours 53m 30.2s WRC2
2. Jari Ketomaa Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +02m 35.9s WRC2
3. Ott Tanak Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +02m 57.8s WRC2
SS3. Jarkko Nikara Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off the road
SS5. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off the road M*
SS6. Oleksiy Kikireshko Ford Fiesta R5 Accident WRC2
SS8/9. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC Accident M
SS9. Michal Solowow Ford Fiesta RS WRC Mechanical
SS11. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC Crashed M
SS16. Sebastien Chardonnet Citroen DS3 R5 Retired WRC2
SS18/SS19. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Rollcage damage M
M denotes Manufacturer entry
*denotes re-started under Rally 2 on Saturday
all times unofficial