PHOTO: New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon tackles a slippery Finnish stage in his Hyundai i20 (Hyundai pic)
A DEFIANT Jari-Matti Latvala clung to a slender lead over Volkswagen teammate Sebastien Ogier in Neste Oil Rally Finland after a dramatic finish to the penultimate day on Saturday.
Five wins from six stages enabled Latvala to stretch his overnight lead from 19.7sec to a comfortable 31.1sec. But the Finn hit a hole across the road in the rutted second pass through Jukojärvi (SS20) and broke the front right brake caliper on his Polo R.
He drove the final three tests with just three brakes and championship leader Ogier, who earlier indicated it would be ‘stupid’ to try to catch Latvala, seized his chance.
He was fastest through the final four stages to set up a thrilling sprint to the Sunday tomorrow.
“I had to hold on,” said Latvala. “I’ve worked so hard and I didn’t come here to lose this rally. We’ll get the car fixed in service and tomorrow we’re in the fight for victory,” Latvala declared.
“I don’t care so much about the world championship right now, this is about Rally Finland.”
Ironically, both Ogier and third-placed Kris Meeke hit the same hole as Latvala but escaped unscathed.
Meeke started the day in second ahead of Ogier but refused to be drawn into a battle and ended 29.0sec behind after a troublefree day in his Citroen DS3.
“It’s not nice what happened to Jari-Matti,” Ogier said.
“I can’t smile too much about the situation. I have a chance to win, but it came about by chance because Jari-Matti was doing a great job at the front.”
Andreas Mikkelsen lay fourth in another Polo R, the Norwegian seeing off challenges from Mads Østberg and Mikko Hirvonen.
Mikkelsen ended the day with no brakes while Hirvonen broke the front right shock absorber on his Ford Fiesta RS in Jukojärvi and lost time.
New Zealander Hayden Paddon, who will contest Coates Hire Rally Australia for Hyundai alongside Australian driver Chris Atkinson, was sixth and ahead of team-mate Juho Hänninen by 28.8sec.
Elfyn Evans was eighth, the Welshman frustrated at not being able to raise his speed in the afternoon. Craig Breen and Henning Solberg completing the leaderboard.
Østberg was the only major retirement. He was withdrawn at the mid-leg service when FIA scrutineers discovered damage to his roll cage following a massive impact with a stone. The Citroen DS3 driver was fighting Andreas Mikkelsen for fourth at the time.
In WRC2, Kkarl Kruuda inherited a comfortable lead after a puncture relegated Jari Ketomaa to second place.
The Estonian, driving a Ford Fiesta S2000, headed the pre-event favourite by 2min 35.9sec. After his flat tyre was compounded by a sticking throttle in the final special stage, Ketomaa has just 21.9sec in hand over charging team-mate Ott Tänak.
Ketomaa lost 3min 30sec after his morning puncture in Surkee (SS16). The flat was made worse when his Ford Fiesta R5 fell off the jack as the crew replaced the wheel.
Australia’s Molly Taylor sits 23rd overall in the Citroen DS3 in which she is contesting round three of the Junior WRC.
Sunday’s final leg is the shortest. Drivers depart Jyväskylä at 8.15am for three stages covering just 36.60km.
The tests are Finland classics with two passes through Ruuhimäki, the second of which is the live TV Power Stage, sandwiching Myhinpää before the 3pm finish.