FIVE straight stage wins on Saturday carried Toyota driver Ott Tänak closer to a maiden victory in Neste Rally Finland.
The Estonian finished 39 seconds ahead of a rejuvenated Mads Østberg and Citroën C3, with whom he fought kilometre by kilometre for top spot in Friday’s opening leg. Tänak’s teammate Jari-Matti Latvala completed the top three at the eighth race of the FIA World Rally Championship season.
Tänak looks set for a second win of the season tomorrow to boost his third-place points in the drivers’ championship, but main title contenders Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier struggled further down the field in 10th and seventh positions.
While the Friday lead changed hands four times between Tänak and Østberg, Saturday was different. A clean sweep of all four blisteringly fast gravel morning stages was followed by a fifth fastest time in the afternoon’s opener.
Just four more tests covering less than 46km stand between Tänak and success on the WRC’s fastest and most coveted rally, which would revive his slim title hopes after a barren run at the previous two rounds.
Tänak nursed a suspected steering problem through the final three stages and said: “We managed to improve it so it was pretty much driveable. This afternoon has been really tough because the conditions were rough and in those conditions you see every rock on the road.”
Østberg was comfortable in second during the morning but the decision to carry a second spare wheel for the afternoon stages proved costly. The additional weight altered the handling of his Citroën C3 and he yielded vital seconds to Latvala.
Latvala, three times a winner in Finland, trailed Østberg by 17.6sec at the mid-leg service but slashed the deficit to 5.4sec to set up an intriguing final day duel.
Esapekka Lappi ended Tänak’s run of stage victories and reeled off three fastest times of his own. He climbed from eighth to fourth in the third Yaris, securing an impressive performance for Toyota Gazoo Racing, on whose doorstep the Jyväskylä-based rally is held, with a total of four 1-2-3 finishes since Saturday morning.
World champion Ogier lacked confidence as he struggled to come to terms with new shock absorbers and an upgraded aerodynamic package on his Ford Fiesta. He was seventh.
Championship leader Thierry Neuville, 27 points ahead of Ogier in the title chase, failed to make up Friday’s lost time and remained 10th. The Belgian was again hampered by a lack of grip, courtesy of an early starting order position, and his only consolation was that Ogier also fared badly.
Sunday comprises four stages to the east of Jyväskylä, with two runs over the Laukaa and Ruuhimäki tests. The second pass of Ruuhimäki, scheduled for 1.18pm local time, will be the rally-ending Power Stage before the finish ceremony in the Jyväskylä service park.
Outright positions after Saturday:
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h13m18.2s
2 Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +39.0s
3 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +44.4s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m20.6s
5 Hayden Paddon/Seb Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m29.6s
6 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m45.1s
7 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m07.6s
7 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m17.9s
9 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +2m56.4s
10 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3m34.5s