PHOTO: Jari-Matti Latvala leads his home event at Neste Oil Rally Finland (Volkswagen pic)
JARI-MATTI Latvala delighted his home fans by leading Neste Oil Rally Finland on Friday night after an enthralling leg in which the lead changed hands three times.
He headed Volkswagen Polo R teammate Sébastien Ogier by 2.6sec after almost 160km of flat-out action south-west of Jyväskylä.
Kris Meeke completed the top three, the Ulsterman 21.4sec further back in Citroën’s DS 3.
The Australian crew of Scott Pedder and Dale Moscatt sit 16th outright and sixth in their WRC2 category in their best day yet of thir 2015 WRC campaign in a Ford Fiesta R5.
Almost half the rally’s competitive distance was crammed into nine gravel speed tests on Friday.
With no opportunity for service, drivers had to avoid problems as well as adapt to the rollercoaster jumps which make this the fastest round in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Ogier lost his overnight lead to Meeke in the opening stage but regained the advantage in the next test to end the morning 5.3sec clear.
Latvala was hot on his heels before moving ahead by literally flying through the rollercoaster Ouninpohja, where cars leap into the air more than 70 times, to claim his 400th WRC stage win.
“I have never driven that stage so fast. I almost made myself scared in a couple of places because I had so much air over the jumps. It was the best stage of an afternoon that went extremely well,” Latvala said.
Road-opener Ogier initially struggled for grip in the forests following Thursday’s torrential rain. Then the unusual lines taken by local competitors, who followed the WRC through the morning stages, left plenty of loose gravel to disadvantage him when they were repeated.
Meeke’s hopes were hampered by a transmission issue which left his car “wandering all over the road”. But the Ulsterman remained close to the Volkswagen duo until a 10sec penalty for checking in late at the penultimate stage dropped him back.
He led Citroën colleague Mads Østberg by 10.1sec, the Norwegian enjoying a trouble-free day after a slow start.
Thierry Neuville was fifth in a Hyundai i20. The Belgian struggled for confidence after a big crash in Thursday’s shakedown with pace notes that were too slow, but climbed the order as drivers around him hit problems.
He headed teammate Dani Sordo by 2.7sec, the Spaniard overcoming an exhaust problem. Juho Hänninen, Martin Prokop, WRC 2 leader Esapekka Lappi and Ott Tänak completed the leaderboard.
Tänak was fourth in a Ford Fiesta RS until breaking a front left damper against a rock in SS3 and struggling through the rest of the day. It was a similar story for teammate Elfyn Evans who hit a rock in SS4 and damaged the rear suspension. He lost almost 10min.
Andreas Mikkelsen rolled heavily in SS5 and the damage to his Polo R was too great for him to restart on Saturday. Hayden Paddon crashed his i20 out of fifth and Robert Kubica retired his Fiesta RS with alternator problems.
Saturday’s action comprises two identical loops of four stages west of Jyväskylä covering 131.04km.