for Rally Italia Sardegna leaderboard after SS9
Hyundai's Thierry Neuville has extended his lead on Rally Italia Sardegna, finishing Friday's repeat loop with an 11.1sec advantage.
Neuvile took the lead in the penultimate stage this morning, winning SS4 and SS5 to head into the mid-day service in Alghero with a 1.5sec margin over Jari-Matti Latvala. The Belgian initially slipped back to second in the first test out of service, when he was 2.4secs slower than the Finn, before re-taking the initiative and winning SS7, SS8 and SS9 to conclude the day firmly on top.
“A great day for us and we were able to finish it by securing our 60th WRC stage win! I think everyone is pleased to see us back at the front, and we are definitely very happy to be here,” Neuville said.
“Of course, we have to acknowledge that we have had a road position advantage today, with the benefit of the earlier drivers cleaning the road. However, we have had a pretty good run today with five stage wins and a lot of increased confidence for Nicolas [Gilsoul – my co-driver] and myself.
“Tomorrow's stages will offer a different picture and it will be an interesting fight. All we can hope is that the car continues to give us a good feeling and that we can demonstrate the sort of pace we have had today.”
Meanwhile, Latvala reported problems with the front diff in SS8 and re-iterated that at the end of SS9, although he still won two stages on Friday and was second quickest in five others.
“There is something wrong in the front, it is understeering… maybe the diff and it is getting worse during the day. I cannot get out of the corners quickly enough and the car is really very difficult to drive now. I cannot attack. We really have work to do,” said the Volkswagen pilot.
Behind, Sebastien Ogier holds third, albeit almost 30 seconds off Latvala, having lost out running first on the road, although he struggled less this afternoon.
“I am very happy. That was better than I expected. Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and I got the maximum out of the day. We wanted to stay ahead of Andreas [Mikkelsen] and Mads [Ostberg], and we achieved precisely that – although we do not have a particularly big lead over them,” the Frenchman summarised.
“The stages are extremely demanding from a driving point of view – very narrow, rough and with little grip, particularly in the morning. That is why we took a risk with the softer tyres on the first loop. A risk that paid off. All in all, a good day.”
Andreas Mikkelsen is next up, overhauling M-Sport's Mads Ostberg for fourth in the final stage of the day. Mikkelsen now leads his fellow countryman by 1sec, with Ogier 17.2secs ahead in third.
“It has been a lot of work today, did not get really the loops we wanted. We had more tyre wear than expected. Strategy is still very uncertain. I will get early in bed today and get ready for tomorrow,” Mikkelsen remarked.
Ostberg, in contrast, felt the decision to run with two spare tyres this afternoon was the wrong one: “It does not look like the extra spare tyre was necessary I am struggling keeping the rear on the line. When you are not able to keep the line you lose quite a lot. We are still here, the car is working well and we get good times. I am not surprised,” he added.
Further back, Dani Sordo holds sixth position in his Hyundai i20 WRC, 20.1secs further down the road, with Ford privateer Henning Solberg and D-MACK WRT ace Ott Tanak a distant eighth and ninth, split by just 3.1 sec.
“It was an OK day for us and it's good to be inside the top-six. We have been lacking a bit of confidence on most stages today,” Sordo admitted.
“The conditions were quite slippery at times. We found the car to behave quite well overall, but it was difficult to drive outside the line on the afternoon loop. We need to find some modifications to improve the car a bit for tomorrow. The final stage today (SS9) played to our strengths and we could set a good time. There are some tough stages left in this rally so we have to keep pushing and seeing where we can make up time.”
Umberto Scandola leads the WRC2 category and is seventh overall, with Esapekka Lappi second in class, 10.1secs back.
Teemu Suinen is now third in WRC2, 9.1secs off Lappi, having lost the lead in SS7 after hitting a rock and picking up a puncture.
Of the rest, Hyundai fourth driver Kevin Abbring lost time this morning after breaking a prop-shaft, while M-Sport's Eric Camilli also had mechanical issues, reporting that the rear-diff had broke near the start of SS3.
“We wanted to have a better start to this rally after our struggles in Portugal, but it wasn't to be,” Abbring lamented. “We broke the propshaft which meant we had front wheel drive only and that forced us to nurse our way through the morning loop.
“We were able to fix things at lunchtime service and in the afternoon, we took things cautiously to try and build a rhythm but it was far from straightforward. Still, the rally is not over yet and we look forward to a more productive, positive and useful learning experience tomorrow.”
“We had a really good start to the rally and I was really pleased with our speed over the opening stage – I think it was even better than last time out in Portugal. Were it not for the technical issue, we could have been fighting close to Mads so it was a disappointment, but sometimes that's just the way it is,” Camilli added.
“We tried to push in the afternoon, but as we were experiencing the stages for the first time at full speed it was difficult to find the rhythm and we made a few little mistakes. We know where the time loss is coming from – little bits here and cuts there – and the car feels good so that is very promising for the future.
“We've not had the best of luck today, but we'll try to push a bit more tomorrow and hopefully we can continue to show some good progress.”
In terms of retirements, Hayden Paddon
was the only major casualty, rolling off the road near the end of SS7. He had been running ninth.
Rally Italia Sardegna now continues on Saturday with the longest leg of the event, totalling 177.70 competitive kilometres and split over three stages, all run twice.
SS10, the 22.20 km Monti Di Ala' 1 test is due to start at 08.10 hours local time [07.10 hours UK time].