KRIS Meeke held a commanding lead at Xion Rally Argentina on Friday night after a day of carnage in the rock-strewn plains near Cordoba.
The Citroën DS3 driver led by 68.4sec from teammate Mads Ostberg as the rough gravel tracks sidelined a host of frontrunners, including FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier.
Ogier was forced to retire for the day with an engine problem. He is expected to resume on Saturday, but without hope of winning the only rally on the WRC calendar that has yet eluded him.
WRC.com reported Jari-Matti Latvala was Meeke’s closest challenger for much of the opening leg until the Volkswagen driver struck trouble late in the day and ended 15.1sec behind Ostberg.
Meeke, second after Thursday night’s curtain-raising stage, moved ahead on the morning’s incredibly rocky opening test and was never headed, despite dropping 15sec with a puncture on the following test. He won three of the five stages.
“Sometimes things just click in a rally car and today was one of those days,” said Meeke, whose improved fortunes followed a string of setbacks in the first three rounds of the 2015 championship.
“Some sections were probably the roughest I’ve experienced. When the stages are as rough as this you must select a pace that feels good, but my target remains simply to have a clean run.”
Latvala remained within 30sec of Meeke until a damaged gearbox casing slowed his Polo R in the penultimate stage.
With only two-wheel drive, he dropped almost a minute in the last two tests to fall behind Ostberg.
Ostberg reset his car’s systems in the opening stage when the engine stopped but enjoyed a clean run afterwards, despite feeling progressively ill as the day continued.
Dani Sordo was almost two minutes off the lead in fourth in a Hyundai i20. He was second early on but broken power steering cost a minute.
He was 5.5sec ahead of Elfyn Evans, the Welshman losing 40sec after being trapped in the dust of a limping Thierry Neuville.
Despite a spin and broken anti-roll bar, Martin Prokop was sixth ahead of a recovering Neuville, who shed four minutes after puncturing when he landed on a stone in the opening stage.
Khalid Al Qassimi and WRC 2 duo Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Yurii Protasov completed the leaderboard.
Ogier was the most high-profile casualty, the Frenchman stopping near the end of the first stage after a fuel supply problem cut the engine of his Polo R back to three cylinders.
Team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen punctured after a high-speed spin and then broke the front suspension. His day finally ended on the link section after mid-leg service with broken power steering.
Ott Tänak retired his Ford Fiesta RS from fourth after hitting a rock in a water splash and breaking the front suspension, while Kiwi Hayden Paddon went out with a catalogue of problems on his Hyundai i20, including damaged engine mounts and a broken exhaust manifold.
Cars restart at 6.20am Saturday local time for two identical loops of two stages north of the rally base of Villa Carlos Paz covering 131.10km.