Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala stretched his advantage on Rally Finland on Saturday's repeat loop, while Kris Meeke and Robert Kubica both went out.
Latvala and team-mate Sebastien Ogier had been nip and tuck in the morning as they duelled for the lead and there was again nothing between them in the first test after lunch, with the latter just 0.1 seconds up on the repeat-run through Mokkipera 2, SS15. However, Latvala was then fastest in the next three stages - gaining 3.3 seconds in the rain-hit SS16, 5.2 seconds in SS17 and 1.8 seconds in SS18. He now goes into the overnight halt with a 13.2 second cushion.
“I am really, really happy with how the afternoon went,” said Latvala. “I knew this was the time to attack. The car went well and even with the rain earlier in Jukojarvi [SS16] - that was the turning point I think - I had to take risks. When the stages are wet and damp it's not easy when you are driving at almost maximum.”
Speaking in the end of day service, Latvala added: “As expected, today was a close battle between Sebastien and me – and we were taking no prisoners out there. I tried to drive a clean line on the stages and not to drift too much. I managed that well, and increased my lead to over 13 seconds.
“That was far from easy, particularly on Jukojarvi, due to the heavy rain. We still have to finish the rally, and we have another two challenging stages tomorrow. I will have to keep my concentration and literally bring the victory home tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Ogier also felt SS16 was the crucial one as he hit a rock near the start and then backed off because he thought he had a puncture.
“It has been another good day, but unfortunately with a slight mistake in the afternoon. I damaged the rear-left rim a few kilometres into stage 16. After that, I was afraid I might have suffered a puncture. As a result, I was a little too cautious for a while,” Ogier explained.
“If I end up finishing second, that is still a fantastic result for the overall standings in the World Championship. And Jari-Matti has really done a fantastic job. He more than deserves to lead going into the final day. It will be almost impossible to catch him unless he makes a mistake. I think the fans have seen an exciting battle so far, in which both drivers have pushed themselves to the absolute limit.”
Mads Ostberg completes the provisional podium, bumped up a place this afternoon when Citroen team-mate Meeke stopped 1.4 km into SS16 after breaking the front left wheel on his DS 3 WRC.
“It was an excellent day,” said Ostberg. “We showed we had the right pace to keep putting the leaders under pressure. We also had to contend with the rain and I had quite a few moments on the sections where the grip levels were inconsistent. My aim is to continue to be quick tomorrow and try to score a few bonus points on the Power Stage.”
Thierry Neuville is next up in fourth, despite engine gremlins on the repeat loop that intermittently dropped his Hyundai i20 WRC to three cylinders.
“To be in fourth at the end of today is really good and quite a nice surprise,” Neuville remarked. “We started the morning with more confidence than yesterday and I enjoyed the stages a lot more, even if we were still struggling for traction. My aim was to defend fifth position from Dani.
“In the afternoon, we had a problem with the engine and lost one of the cylinders. We worked quite a lot on the car and it was much better after the team gave us some good advice, so we could get to the end of the day.
“We have inherited fourth place today so now our target is to keep this in tomorrow's stages and hope for a trouble-free end to the rally.”
Behind, after his problems on Friday, M-Sport's Ott Tanak has climbed back up to fifth, overhauling Juho Hanninen in the final test of the day. Tanak is now 1.9s ahead.
“After such a frustrating day yesterday, it has been a good one for us today. After yesterday's disappointment, there was no need to push the limits so we were fairly careful without taking any risks,” Tanak noted.
“We were basically just perfecting the notes because I've only done this event in a world rally car once before and that was three years ago! Experience is really important here so we focused on getting that; but it was good to see that our times weren't too far away, even when we were taking it really steady.
“I really didn't expect to be sitting in fifth place tonight, but that just goes to show how much respect you need to show these stages. Hopefully we can continue tomorrow as we have today and bring home some good points for the team.”
Further back, Martin Prokop is seventh, with WRC2 runners Esapekka Lappi and Pontus Tidemand eighth and ninth in their Skoda Fabia R5s – split by over a minute.
“We were able to stay in control. There was no need to take any risks but we kept up the fast pace. I really like our Fabia R5 and everything about it worked perfectly,” said Lappi.
Lorenzo Bertelli rounds out the top ten, with Dani Sordo now 11th, after going off the road and getting stuck in a ditch in SS15. The Spaniard, who had been sixth overall, lost over 5 minutes as a result. Elfyn Evans is 14th.
“The afternoon was not so good because I made a mistake in SS15, going offline and getting stuck in a ditch,” Sordo said. “We were able to get it back on the road but we lost a lot of time in the process, which meant we were out of the fight.
“I didn't take any risks in the remaining stages but we will try to push a bit more in the final stages tomorrow to learn more about the car in these conditions.”
In terms of day two retirements, in addition to Meeke, Robert Kubica crashed out right near the end of the final test, rolling his Fiesta RS WRC. Kubica had been running under Rally 2 after alternator problems sidelined him on Friday on the way to SS6.
Rally Finland now concludes on Sunday, with just one test on the bill – to be run twice – the 14.13 km Myhinpaa test. Mhyinpaa 1 is due to start tomorrow at 10.43 hours local time [08.43 hours UK time]. Full itinerary for round eight in WRC 2015 available - HERE
2015 Rally Finland: Overall standings after Stage 18 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 2hrs 20m 20.6s
2. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +0m 13.2s
3. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +1m 28.0s
4. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +3m 26.5s
5. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +4m 19.1s
6. Juho Hanninen
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +4m 21.0s
7. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +5m 41.2s
8. Esapekka Lappi
Skoda Fabia R5 +6m 32.6s
9. Pontus Tidemand
Skoda Fabia R5 +7m 55.9s
10. Lorenzo Bertelli
FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC +8m 56.8s
11. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +9m 22.5s
12. Stephane Lefebvre
Citroen DS 3 RRC +9m 35.9s
13. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +11m 03.9s
14. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +11m 30.6s
15. Scott Pedder
Ford Fiesta R5 +12m 45.5s
16. Anders Grondal
Citroen DS 3 R5 +14m 00.6s
17. Khalid Al Qassimi
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +15m 17.4s
WRC2 standings after Stage 18 (Top 3):
1. Esapekka Lappi
Skoda Fabia R5 2hrs 26m 53.2s
2. Pontus Tidemand
Skoda Fabia R5 +1m 23.3s
3. Stephane Lefebvre
Citroen DS 3 RRC +3m 03.3s
SS5. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC Crashed
SS5/6. Robert Kubica
Ford Fiesta RS WRC Mechanical
SS5/6. Craig Breen
Peugeot 208 T16 Engine
SS6. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC Crashed
SS16. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC Broke front-left wheel
SS18. Robert Kubica
Ford Fiesta RS WRC Rolled
*denotes re-started on Saturday under Rally 2
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial