Thierry Neuville now leads Rallye Deutschland after Jari-Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke both crashed out this morning.
Neuville began the day in third, but overnight leader Latvala went off the road around 4 kilometres from the end of the 18.03 km Dhrontal 1 test. His Volkswagen Polo R WRC then slid down a slope and onto the road below.
Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila were both uninjured, but the result has serious implications for his title challenge and means he won't now eat into the 44 point lead of team-mate Sebastien Ogier. Ogier retired on Saturday.
Citroen's Meeke then took over at the front, albeit only briefly, as he went out on the next test, SS16, when he crashed into a wall just 2 km in and ripped off the rear left wheel. He later confirmed an incorrect pacenote was to blame.
All that drama puts Neuville on top, 35.7 seconds up on Dani Sordo, with Hyundai now not only poised for its maiden WRC win, but also a one-two. It will also be Neuville's first win and the first for a Belgian driver since Francois Duval won Rally Australia in 2005.
“Being in front is a great feeling,” said Neuville. “[But] the fact that two of the best drivers are out so quickly this morning shows how difficult conditions are.”
“Now, I am on course for a podium finish. However, I will not push too hard to overtake Neuville,” Sordo added. “I can only repeat my victory from last year if Neuville hits trouble. Our strategy is easy: we have to continue like before and remain error-free.”
Volkswagen Motorsport II pilot Andreas Mikkelsen meanwhile holds third, but he is only 8.5 seconds up on M-Sport's Elfyn Evans after losing around ten seconds in SS15, when he spun at the same place as Latvala went off.
“We need to do more of the same this afternoon,” said Evans, who was third quickest in SS15 and second in SS16. “We've had very few slides and moments so if we can keep doing what we're doing and concentrate on having a clean run it will be a very positive result for us.
“To be honest, the times are coming fairly naturally – without having to take the risks – so there's no need to do any more than that for the moment. We won't be going all out for the podium; there's plenty of time for that next year.”
M-Sport WRT number one Mikko Hirvonen completes the top-five, having dropped behind Evans - now 9.6 seconds back.
“It's not so bad. OK, we're losing some time to Elfyn, but we've found it really tricky in the muddy conditions,” Hirvonen explained. “I think we should have gone a lot softer with the set-up because we've struggled with the grip and we overshot two junctions in the first stage [SS15]. We'll make a few small changes in service and see if that helps for the afternoon.”
Behind, Mads Ostberg is sixth - only 3.8 seconds adrift in his Citroen, while Ford privateer Martin Prokop is a distant seventh and Dennis Kuipers holds eighth.
“It's been quite a difficult morning with some really challenging conditions,” Kuipers remarked. “As we started the first stage [SS15] we were surprised by how good the grip was, but as soon as we got into the woods there was so much mud and the grip levels were changing all the time. The main thing is that we managed to stay on the road and out of trouble.”
Julien Maurin and Ott Tanak round out the top ten, now split by 24.3 seconds as they duel for the WRC2 victory.
In addition to Latvala and Meeke, Robert Kubica also retired this morning, with a transmission issue stopping him on the liaison section to SS15. Bryan Bouffier re-started under Rally 2 today and is currently in P17 in the third Hyundai i20 WRC.
Rallye Deutschland now concludes with repeat-runs through this morning's two tests. SS17, Dhrontal 2, is scheduled to start at 10.55 hours local time [09.55 hours UK time]. SS18, Grafschaft 2 – the Power Stage, then follows at 12.08 hours local time [11.08 hours UK time].
Rallye Deutschland: Overall standings after Stage 16 (Top 10):
1. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC 2hr 43m 52.4s
2. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +00m 35.7s
3. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 56.1s
4. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 04.6s
5. Mikko Hirvonen
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 14.2s
6. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +01m 18.0s
7. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +04m 16.3s
8. Dennis Kuipers
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +08m 01.5s
9. Julien Maurin
Ford Fiesta R5 +10m 16.4s
10. Ott Tanak
Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +10m 40.7s
11. Yuriy Protasov
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +10m 50.2s
12. Pontus Tidemand
Ford Fiesta R5 +10m 52.7s
13. Xavi Pons
Ford Fiesta R5 +11m 12.4s
14. Armin Kremer
Skoda Fabia S2000 +11m 25.2s
15. Jaroslav Melicharek
Slovakia WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC 11m 27.5s
16. Sam Moffett
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +12m 08.7s
17. Bryan Bouffier
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +12m 28.9s
WRC2 standings after Stage 16 (Top 3):
1. Julien Maurin
Ford Fiesta R5 2hrs 54m 08.8s
2. Ott Tanak
Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 +00m 24.3s
3. Pontus Tidemand
Ford Fiesta R5 +00m 36.3s
SS6. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC Went off
SS8. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC Crashed
SS10. Sebastien Chardonnet
Citroen DS3 R5 Mechanical
SS11. Bernardo Sousa
Ford Fiesta RRC Mechanical
SS14. Bryan Bouffier
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC Went off
SS15. Robert Kubica
RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Mechanical
SS15. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC Accident
SS16. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Accident
*denotes re-started under Rally 2 on Saturday
**denotes re-started under Rally 2 on Sunday
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial