PHOTO: Jari-Matti Latvala thrills the spectators in Finland (Volkswagen pic)
A BLISTERING afternoon performance has enabled Jari-Matti Latvala to extend his lead after Friday’s stages at Neste Oil Rally Finland, round eight of the FIA World Rally Championship.
The Finn added less than four seconds to his overnight lead from Thursday during Friday morning’s four special stages. But a hat-trick of stage wins in the afternoon allowed him to build a 19.7sec lead in his Volkswagen Polo R at the end of leg two of the four-day event.
“We pushed hard and took some really big risks. I felt relaxed and had a good feeling,and when I’m relaxed I normally do my best performance,” said Latvala, who survived an early morning scare when he dropped his car into a ditch.
The ultra-fast roads of the event known as the “gravel grand prix” suited Kris Meeke, who moved his Citroen DS3 into second, relegating world champion Sébastien Ogier’s Polo R into third. The gap between them is 1.6sec.
The Northern Ireland driver showed his best pace to date for the French team and won a stage on Friday morning. Stage opener Ogier took on an unwilling role as sweeper as the afternoon sun dried the roads, leaving a coating of loose surface gravel.
“It was a frustrating afternoon,” admitted the Frenchman.
“But I’m still happy with what I’ve done and happy to finish my sweeping role.”
Andreas Mikkelsen, Mikko Hirvonen and Mads Østberg fought hard behind the leading trio.
Hirvonen held the initiative for most of the day until a spin allowed Østberg, who became increasingly confident after overnight set-up changes, to move ahead.
But Mikkelsen leapfrogged them both to hold a 1.2sec advantage in his Polo R over the Norwegian’s DS3, with Hirvonen a further 1.9sec adrift in his Fiesta RS.
Hayden Paddon showed good pace with an oil-thirsty Hyundai i20 to hold seventh with Elfyn Evans (Fiesta RS), Juho Hänninen (Hyundai i20) and Craig Breen (Fiesta RS) completing the leaderboard.
Hänninen held fourth until he punctured and later rolled in SS6, losing a minute. Intermittent power steering problems hindered his recovery.
Thierry Neuville swiped the rear of his i20 against the scenery in the opening stage, ripping the rear wing from the car. He struggled on with no aero assistance but the impact damaged the roll cage and he retired from the rally at the mid-leg service.
Robert Kubica crashed 1.6km into the opening test and damaged the front left suspension on his Fiesta RS. Martin Prokop crashed his similar car in the afternoon and Michal Solowow failed to leave the mid-leg service with a fluid leak in his engine.
Saturday’s penultimate leg offers another long day at the wheel. Drivers restart at 7am to tackle two identical loops of five stages covering 130.36km before the overnight halt just before 10pm.