PHOTO: Mads Østberg inherited third spot from teammate Kris Meeke (Citroen pic)
THREE straight stage wins on Saturday afternoon put Jari-Matti Latvala in control of Neste Oil Rally Finland after a titanic battle with Volkswagen teammate Sébastien Ogier.
With only two tests and less than 30km remaining on Sunday, Latvala led by 13.2sec after a brave attack in treacherous conditions gave him the upper hand over Ogier and left the Finn on the verge of a third victory in his home rally.
Australia’s Scott Pedder moved up to fifth in the WRC2 category and 15th outright after a steady day and is heading for his best finish in a WRC round.
Latvala and Ogier had dueled for supremacy since Thursday night and the margin never rose above a handful of seconds. Latvala began Saturday’s eight tests covering 131.04km with a 2.6sec lead and eked it out to 3.0sec after the duo claimed two stage wins each in the morning.
Despite torrential rain, Latvala attacked in the 21.14km Jukojärvi and more than doubled his lead as Ogier clipped a rock with his Polo R. Fearing a puncture, the Frenchman eased his pace and gave Latvala the break he needed.
He added two more victories in Surkee and Horkka to stretch the lead into double figures and leave Ogier virtually conceding victory.
“I knew it was time to attack this afternoon and it went well, despite the rain,” Latvala said.
“That was the turning point of the rally. You have to take risks at the speeds we’re at here. Some sections were wet and some dry, and it wasn’t easy when you’re at the maximum.”
Ogier paid tribute to his team-mate.
“Jari-Matti has done a fantastic job. I drove as hard as I could and have no regrets.
“Even if I finish second it’ll be a great result for the championship. I had a chance in the rain but missed it when I thought I had a puncture,” he said.
Mads Østberg held a lonely third, 1min 14.8sec behind Ogier and almost two minutes clear of Thierry Neuville. The Norwegian inherited the place when Citroën teammate Kris Meeke crashed at the same bend as Ogier’s escape and broke his DS3’s front left suspension.
Neuville’s Hyundai i20 ran intermittently on three cylinders during the afternoon, a problem traced to a faulty sensor. The Belgian was 52.6sec ahead of Ott Tänak, who climbed from 10th to fifth in a Ford Fiesta RS restored to health after Friday’s suspension damper problems.
Juho Hänninen completed the top six after losing position to Tänak in the final stage. Martin Prokop was seventh, despite twice going off the road and overshooting a junction the morning, with WRC 2 leader Esapekka Lappi, Pontus Tidemand and Lorenzo Bertelli completing the leaderboard.
Dani Sordo dropped from sixth to 11th after going off for five minutes, while Robert Kubica rolled his Fiesta heavily 300 metres from the finish of the final stage.
Sunday’s final leg comprises two passes over the 14.13km Myhinpää, the second of which is the live TV Power Stage with bonus points to the fastest three drivers.