PHOTO: Jari-Matti Latvala slides his Polo R through a corner on Saturday (Volkswagen pic)
THE stage is set for a thrilling finish in Vodafone Rally de Portugal on Sunday, with Jari-Matti Latvala eyeing his first win of the season as he defends a 9.5 sec. lead over hard-charging teammate Sebastien Ogier.
Their Volkswagen team boss Jost Capito has declared there will be no team orders in the final three stages, but the pair faces potential podium challenges also from third-placed Kris Meeke in a Citroen and the fourth-placed Volkswagen 3# Andreas Mikkelsen.
Just 21.1 sec cover the first four cars, with 54.56 km left to run.
Australian Scott Pedder completed the second day in his WRC2 Ford Fiesta R5 after rolling out of day one.
After restarting near the back of the field he set two top-nine times to finish the day 18th in the category.
World champion Ogier, despite enduring the worst road conditions of the frontrunners, roared up Saturday’s leaderboard from sixth to second. He won all three afternoon speed tests to reduce Friday’s 25.9sec deficit to his Volkswagen Polo R team-mate to 9.5sec.
Volkswagen team boss Jost Capito sad he would let Latvala and Ogier fighting it out to the finish.
“The top four drivers each want to win, and we will let them fight,” he said.
“Of course manufacturer points are a consideration but it’s important for the sport that we let them go for it.
“I think we will see a fantastic showdown tomorrow.”
Tyre choice and management were crucial factors over the six mountain stages in northern Portugal. Ahead of the last test, Latvala was confident his hard-compound Michelins would give him an advantage over Ogier’s three hard and one soft tyres.
But the Finn, who overshot a junction in the opening stage, conceded almost five seconds to give Ogier a chance of victory in the kind of challenge he seems to relish.
“The tyres started to fade near the end. Maybe I attacked too much in the asphalt section.
“I’m a bit disappointed but at least we’re still ahead. Ogier is coming very strongly. In these situations he is fired up. This is like a fuel for him.”
Ogier swept gravel from the road in the morning and admitted he gambled with tyres in the afternoon.
“We took some risk with tyre choice. It wasn’t so bad but it was on the limit. I’ll keep pushing flat out and let’s see where we are tomorrow,” he said.
Kris Meeke won two rnorning stages to close to within 6.1sec of the lead in Citroën’s DS 3. But the Northern Irishman slipped back to finish 10.5sec behind Ogier and 1.1sec ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen in fourth.
Mikkelsen won the opening stage to briefly hold second but the Norwegian, who spun his Polo R across the finish of the final test, ended 21.1sec off the lead.
Ott Tänak fell away from the podium battle but was untroubled in fifth in his new-generation Ford Fiesta RS, ahead of an intriguing three-car fight for sixth.
Hayden Paddon had control heading into the last stage but a broken gearbox allowed Hyundai teammate Dani Sordo in front by 5.6sec. Mads Østberg could not capitalise as a broken sensor deprived him of turbo boost and he was 4.0sec behind.
Robert Kubica and Martin Prokop completed the leaderboard in Fiesta RS cars, Prokop surviving a puncture and a spin.
Thierry Neuville and Lorenzo Bertelli both rolled in the morning while Elfyn Evans broke the front right suspension on his Fiesta RS after hitting a rock in the same test.
Sunday’s showdown will include two passes through the Fafe stage, one of the WRC’s iconic locations, wich is expected to attract tens f thousands of spectators. The second run will be the live TV Power Stage with bonus points for the fastest three drivers.