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PHOTO: Elfyn Evans splashes through a water crossing as he fights to hold off Thierry Neuville at Rally Argentina (WRC/Jaanus Ree pic)

FORD driver Elfyn Evans clung to the lead of YPF Rally Argentina on Saturday after a troubled run that allowed Thierry Neuville to rein him in and set up a thrilling finale.

After stretching his advantage to more than a minute on Saturday morning, Evans watched the Belgian Hyundai pilot whittle it down to just 11.5sec, with one of the toughest days of the WRC season waiting on Sunday.

“We didn’t come here to finish second after all this work, so if he wants the win, he’s going to have to bloody fight for it,” Evans declared as he prepared for the showdown that could produce his maiden WRC victory at Villa Carlos Paz on Sunday afternoon.

The Welshman won the opening stage in his Ford Fiesta, his seventh victory in 10 tests. A slow puncture in the next test, followed by another when a pace note mix-up sent him into a bank, reduced his advantage to 44sec at the midpoint.

In the afternoon his car’s aerodynamic rear diffuser was ripped off in a heavy landing, affecting its handling, especially in the high-speed sections. A final stage spin allowed a charging Neuville to close.

“We had no major problems, just a lot of niggly things,” Evans said.

“There was something strange with the rear, the car was soft and oversteering and I didn’t feel comfortable.”

Neuville punctured when his Hyundai i20 Coupe hit a bank after he was blinded by early morning sun. Mid-leg gearbox and front differential changes briefly disrupted his rhythm, but victories in the final two stages turned the pressure on Evans.

Ott Tänak was just 8.4sec behind Neuville after a strong day in his Fiesta. The Estonian saw off teammate Sébastien Ogier and Mads Østberg before cementing third with two afternoon stage wins.

Østberg couldn’t match Friday’s pace and second place became fourth as his diffuser was also torn off. The Norwegian eventually retired after damaging his suspension against a rock in the penultimate stage.

Four-time world champion and current series leader Ogier trailed Tänak in fourth by 18.4sec after a series of problems. He spun in a watersplash and had little confidence in his ill-handling car. The team made major changes at the rear, which improved his afternoon speed.

Jari-Matti Latvala and Hayden Paddon filled the top six. Latvala experimented with the set-up of his Toyota Yaris while Paddon broke the anti-roll bar in his i20.

Juho Hänninen was seventh, despite similar power problems to Friday, while Lorenzo Bertelli, Dani Sordo and WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand filled the leaderboard.

Kris Meeke restarted after rolling his Citroën C3 day one. He won two stages before rolling out for a second time in the penultimate stage.

Sunday’s finale is one of the WRC’s classic days. Two passes through the famous hanging bridges of El Condor sandwich the lunar-like landscape of Giulio Cesare, both high in the Traslasierra mountains.

The three rocky stages cover 55.28km, with the second pass through El Condor offering Power Stage bonus points to the fastest five drivers.

Saturday outright standings:

1 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt) Ford Fiesta WRC) 2:53:45.7
2 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +11.5
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +26.8
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +49.9
5 Jari-Matti. Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1:24.6
6 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +4:26.7
7 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindstrom (Toyota Yaris WRC) +9:34.3
8 Lorenzo Bertelli/Simone Scattolin (Ford Fiesta WRC) +12:10.0
9 Dani Sordo/Marc Martí (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +13:26.8
10 Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Škoda Fabia R5) +13:57.5

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.