Hyundai's Thierry Neuville has concluded the second leg of Rally Sweden on top, snatching the position from Andreas Mikkelsen in the final test of the day.
Neuville opted to save two fresh tyres for the repeat-run through the 24.63km Vargeasen 2 test, SS18, and that decision paid dividends, giving the Belgian the stage win and the rally lead.
“It was a big, big push,” Neuville said. “I think that is one of the best stages I have ever done. I have a good feeling in the car.
“We are having a really good time and a lot of fun. It will be hard tomorrow but I am not going to slow down now.”
Neuville had begun Saturday's action in second overall, 19.1 seconds off Mikkelsen, but he fell back to third in SS12 after being overhauled by Sebastien Ogier.
On the second loop, however, Neuville moved back ahead of the Frenchman with the fastest time in Fredriksberg 2, SS15. That time also allowed him to close the gap to Mikkelsen, from 12.4s to 8.7s. Neuville then took more time out of the Norwegian in SS16, bringing the gap down to 6.7s, and while he lost a little bit in SS17, he was well placed to seize the initiative in SS18, where he also took this year's Colin's Crest Award, breaking the record for the longest jump in the Arena as he leaped a staggering 44 metres.
Speaking back in service, Neuville added: “It has been another great day for us and it is a fantastic feeling to be leading the rally. I have pushed hard today and have really enjoyed the stages. I don't think I have ever felt this good with the Hyundai i20 WRC.
“We made a good tyre choice today and I have been happy with our performance level. We have scored some stage wins and, in the final stage of the day, the repeat of Vargåsen, I had a fantastic jump over Colin's Crest of 44 metres. It felt like a good jump and I am proud to pick up the award.
“We've had a close battle throughout the whole event so my target for tomorrow is, of course, to keep my position, but it's close so we have to see what tomorrow brings. I'm ready for it.”
“That was an extremely exciting day for us,” Mikkelsen continued. “The situation was rather unusual for us at first: having to defend a lead. I made two mistakes that cost us time in the morning. The biggest of these was spinning on the 'Vargåsen' stage after planting the front of our Polo in a snow bank. I had to turn round, which was a complicated procedure and took 20 seconds. However, the afternoon was far more to my liking again, and we made up a lot of time.
“We made the most of our starting position and there is not much between us and first place. That remains our main goal. The same thing applies tomorrow, as has applied throughout the entire rally for us: flat out, no tactics.”
Meanwhile, Ogier pushed as much as he could in the afternoon, but was hindered by being first on the road. He ends the leg 8.1s off P2 and 9.6s off Neuville.
“The conditions were terrible, but I have done all I can,” Ogier confirmed after SS18. “I am happy with my stage. Whatever the time of the others I have done my best. I wouldn't want to push like that all the time.”
“Overall I am really extremely happy with my performance today,” the two-time WRC champion continued. Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and I gave it everything. We have been right on the very limit on every stage.
“I am now looking forward to tomorrow, as it promises to be one of the most exciting final days in recent times. Compliments to Thierry Neuville, who was equally impressive as my team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen. However, the boys know to look out, as I am here to win!”
Behind, Citroen's Mads Ostberg is fourth in his DS3 WRC, having lost ground in the first test today when he slid wide and hit a bank, picking up a puncture. That incident cost him over 40 seconds and post-SS18 he is 43.8s off Ogier – and 53.4 off the lead.
“It was a tough day,” Ostberg stated. “Most of the stages went very well, but I had a few problems. I also made a mistake on the first stage of the day. We picked up a puncture and lost about 45 seconds. I'm disappointed but I'm going to concentrate on fourth position and enjoy the last three stages. We'll see what happens.”
M-Sport's Ott Tanak holds fifth, with Hyundai's Hayden Paddon sixth – more than a minute back – and Martin Prokop seventh.
“I've had quite a nice day – we were struggling quite a lot yesterday but today was better,” said Tanak. “Okay the first loop wasn't so good because of our road position, but generally I think it's been good.
“There isn't really anything to push for so we've just been concentrating on having a clean run with no risks and no moments. I'm happy from that point of view. This is the position that we're in and I want to keep it so it's just a case perfecting the notes and ensuring that we make it to the end.”
"It has been a pretty satisfactory day," Paddon noted. "We had some good stages, as well as some tough ones, but I feel we have learned a lot. My aim this morning was to secure our sixth place and then, in the afternoon, to push a bit more to increase the gap. We have made improvements today even if the conditions have still been very challenging at times.
"The final stage today was one of the highlights; I really enjoyed it and felt that we ended the day on a high [with the sixth best time]. Now, I look forward to keeping a top six position in tomorrow's final three stages. That would be a decent result for us in our first WRC event of the year.”
Brits Elfyn Evans and Kris Meeke complete the leg in eighth and ninth, split by just 0.4 seconds, followed by Yuriy Protasov, Kevin Abbring and Michal Solowow in positions 10 through to 12.
“It was a difficult morning and we lost a lot of time in the first loop. We didn't have the confidence but this afternoon has been a lot better. The times have been a lot more promising and more where they should be to be honest,” said Evans.
“I think it mostly comes from being a bit more relaxed but the conditions have also been a bit more predictable which helped. We're still lacking some confidence in places, so we'll work to put that right tomorrow.”
“We won our first stage in Sweden on the snow today [SS16],” Meeke added. “I have to be pleased with my day, despite the frustration from yesterday. On Friday evening, we were 3 minutes 31 seconds behind the leader and now the gap is 3 minutes 22 seconds. This is only my second Rally Sweden. We have to keep up the same pace tomorrow because we're less than a second behind Elfyn and Prokop is only 19 seconds ahead. There are still places up for grabs!”
Of the rest, former F1 driver Robert Kubica and Jari-Matti Latvala continue to run further down after their problems on Friday. Kubica is 16th, one spot ahead of Latvala and one behind Henning Solberg, who started the day in ninth, before losing over 5 minutes when he got stuck in a snow bank in SS11. Henning was also plagued by gearbox issues again.
“Sometimes this is just the way it goes, and it is just the way it has gone this weekend,” Henning remarked. “We had some problems with the gearbox this morning but the mechanics were able to fix that in service. Now I'm just enjoying the stages and looking forward to having some fun tomorrow.”
In WRC2, Jari Ketomaa remains on course to win the principal support category and while his lead has been cut, he still has a 30 second buffer. Eyvind Brynildsen is second, with Fredrik Ahlin third.
Rally Sweden now concludes on Sunday, with three stages on the bill and a competitive distance of 46.76 kilometres. SS19, the 15km Lesjofors test, is due to start at 08.57 hours local time [07.57 hours UK time].
2015 Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 18 (Top 10):
1. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC 2h 29m 54.5s M
2. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +1.5s
3. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +9.6s M
4. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +53.4s M
5. Ott Tanak M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1m 29.2s M
6. Hayden Paddon Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +2m 35.7s M
7. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +3m 03.1s M
8. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +3m 22.1s M
9. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +3m 22.5s M
10. Yuriy Protasov M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +4m 19.6s
11. Kevin Abbring Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +6m 45.0s M
12. Michal Solowow Synthos Cersanit RT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +7m 09.3s
13. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta R5 +7m 44.7s WRC2
14. Eyvind Brynildsen Ford Fiesta RRC +8m 15.3s WRC2
15. Henning Solberg M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +8m 34.4s
16. Robert Kubica RK WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +8m 51.5s M
17. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +9m 01.1s M
WRC2 standings after Stage 18 (Top 3):
1. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta R5 2h 37m 39.2s WRC2
2. Eyvind Brynildsen Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 30.6s WRC2
3. Fredrik Ahlin Ford Fiesta R5 +2m 14.2s WRC2
SS5/6. Lorenzo Bertelli FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC Mechanical M*
SS14. Lorenzo Bertelli FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off M
*denotes re-started under Rally 2 on Saturday
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial