Championship leader Sebastien Ogier remains on course to win Rally Mexico again having extended his advantage even further on Saturday afternoon.
Ogier started the second full-day of competition, 13.5 seconds up on Jari-Matti Latvala, but when his team-mate went out in SS12
- after hitting a bank and losing a wheel - the two-time World Rally Champion was left with a comfortable buffer. He went into the mid-day service 1 minute 8.3 seconds ahead of Mads Ostberg and then proceeded to stretch that lead this afternoon, winning SS15 and SS17.
The Frenchman will now go into the final leg, 1 minute 15.2 seconds ahead as he looks to secure his third win of the year and his third win in succession in Mexico.
“I am really happy. It has been a perfect rally up to now and it has been perfect today too,” Ogier said. “It is working like a dream. I feel good and the car feels good. With the gap I have I can afford to drive safely and that is the target for sure. I am now looking forward to the first stage tomorrow.”
Speaking back in final service, Ogier added: “From a driving perspective, this weekend is definitely one of the best of my career, I am very happy with my performance. Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and I have had another perfect day and haven't made any mistakes. We kept putting pressure on the others. While I didn't need to continue taking risks after Jari-Matti Latvala retired, the job is far from done. I said previously that a win here was highly unlikely unless my rivals had a bad weekend – and now it looks like it might actually happen.
“But we still have the longest and most challenging stage of the rally ahead of us. I can promise you this: Despite our lead, we won't be making the mistake of shifting down a few gears. The danger of losing focus would be too great.”
Behind, Ostberg has come under pressure from Andreas Mikkelsen in the scrap for second, the gap cut from 9.7s post-SS14 to 4.5s at the end of the day.
Mikkelsen took 4.8s out of the Citroen man in SS15, before Ostberg responded with the quickest time in SS16, 1.1s quicker. There was then nothing much to choose between them in SS17, before Mikkelsen was fastest in SS18, gaining 1.2s.
“We're sticking to our plan and aren't changing it: Our aim is to drive at our own rhythm, stay out of trouble and to reach the finish of each special stage without incident,” Mikkelsen said. “We don't have much experience of Mexico and many of the stages are new to us. Which is why the first pass of the special stages in the morning wasn't as good as the pass in the afternoon.
“We left room for manoeuvre and waited until the afternoon loop to attack a bit more. I'm very happy with how the rally is going for us. So far, so good – tomorrow will be another hard day for us, with tricky special stages. But even then we need to stick to our plan for the rally.”
“Everything's going well,” Ostberg added. “We lost a bit of time with a spin this morning, but our pace has been good throughout the day. We have to stay focussed on the job in hand and maintain the same rhythm until the end. I feel comfortable in the DS 3 WRC.
“It'll be a good fight with Andreas, bearing in mind, of course, that we must make it to the end of the rally.”
M-Sport's Elfyn Evans is next up in fourth, over a minute further back, but now safely ahead of Dani Sordo after the Spaniard lost almost a minute in Ibarrilla 2 with a puncture.
“Today has been a good day overall but it has been more about being reliable than anything else. We didn't find a great rhythm this morning, but then Dani had some problems which really took the pressure off,” Evans said.
“This is such a difficult rally and tomorrow will be all about making sure we get safely to the finish. Of course anything can still happen, but I think fourth place would be another great result for us on only our second time here.”
“This morning, things went well and I was very happy,” Sordo continued. “Our road position was good and I was pleased with the performance of the car. We lost the brakes a bit at the end of the opening stage of the day but we still set the fourth time so it wasn't so bad.
“We were also able to set the fastest stage time in SS13 after a good run but we also experienced some gearbox issues which manifested themselves during the morning. The team changed our gearbox over lunchtime service but in the first stage of the afternoon loop, we hit a stone which caused a puncture and lost us a lot of time.
“I had one spare soft tyre with me but to cover almost 60km so I adopted a cautious approach. It was an unfortunate end to what had been a very positive day, but we are still fifth overall and we will look to consolidate this position on Sunday.”
Ford privateer Martin Prokop completes the top six – now only 29s off Sordo's Hyundai i20 – with WRC2 runners Nasser Al-Attiyah, Nicolas Fuchs, Jari Ketomaa and Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari in positions 7 through to 10. Al-Attiyah gained the WRC2 lead in SS16, when Yuriy Protasov had to stop due to an engine problem.
“I feel sorry for him [Protasov]. This afternoon we applied a lot of pressure. Now we need to be clever. We are quite happy now,” Al-Attiyah remarked.
Thierry Neuville re-started this morning under Rally 2 and is now on the fringes of a place in the top-ten, with local star and fellow returnee Benito Guerra Jr one spot back in P12.
“First of all, I would like to thank the team for their fantastic work in repairing our #7 Hyundai i20 WRC following our roll yesterday,” Neuville noted.
“They worked very professionally to fix the car to allow us to restart today. It has been a good day, generally, and things have gone well. We have been able to demonstrate a similar pace to yesterday, although our road position has not been as favourable. We had a big push again today and have found a decent rhythm but incurring a 21 minute penalty means it is hard to make up too many positions. We'll keep fighting, as we always do.”
Kris Meeke, Hayden Paddon and Robert Kubica rejoined on Saturday as well, the latter winning SS14, but then losing out with punctures in SS16 and SS17.
Ott Tanak had been due to compete, despite going off and putting his car in a lake on Friday in SS3. However, despite the overnight work of his mechanics to fix his Fiesta RS WRC, he was unable to make it to the start of SS11
“The boys did an awesome job last night so it was a real shame for everyone not to be able to start the stages today. In the end it was just a really small detail that stopped us this morning – literally just a sensor! It's fixed now and we're ready to get out in the morning,” Tanak said.
“It's really important for myself and Raigo [Molder - my co-driver] to get back out tomorrow. It's the only way to regain the pace. We need to do some driving and as we don't have any pressure we can just enjoy these amazing stages. We need to get back on the horse and keep pushing.”
Rally Mexico now concludes on Sunday, and while there are only three stages on the bill, the first, SS19, is the monster 55.82 km Guanajuatito test.
It is due to start at 09.53 hours local time [15.53 hours UK time]. Full itinerary for event available - HERE
2015 Rally Mexico: Overall standings after Stage 18 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 3h 33m 27.4s
2. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +1m 15.2s
3. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +1m 19.7s
4. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2m 28.6s
5. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +4m 10.6s
6. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +4m 39.6s
7. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC +10m 43.9s
8. Nicolas Fuchs
Ford Fiesta R5 +18m 34.5s
9. Jari Ketomaa
Ford Fiesta R5 +19m 39.5s
10. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +19m 49.1s
11. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +22m 23.8s
12. Benito Guerra Jr.
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +24m 30.2s
13. Simone Tempestini
Subaru Impreza STi +27m 31.6s
WRC2 standings after Stage 18 (Top 3):
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC 3h 44m 11.3s
2. Nicolas Fuchs
Ford Fiesta R5 +7m 50.6s
3. Jari Ketomaa
Ford Fiesta R5 +8m 55.6s
SS3. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off
SS4. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC Went off
SS4. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC Suspension damage
SS4. Robert Kubica
RK WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Stopped
SS8. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC Rolled
SS8. Lorenzo Bertelli
Ford Fiesta RS WRC Stopped
SS8/9. Benito Guerra Jr.
Ford Fiesta RS WRC Stopped
SS11. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Retired before test
SS12. Lorenzo Bertelli
Ford Fiesta RS WRC Stopped
SS12. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC Lost a wheel
SS16. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC Engine
*denotes re-started under Rally 2 on Saturday
**denotes will re-start under Rally 2 on Sunday
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial