JARI-Matti Latvala led RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España on Saturday night after an enthralling penultimate leg ended with six drivers battling for honours.
The Finn was the third leader of another dramatic FIA World Rally Championship day in which the pendulum swung back and forth between the title contenders.
The Toyota Yaris driver headed a resurgent Sébastien Ogier by 4.7sec after the Frenchman staged a remarkable charge up the leaderboard from seventh to strengthen his claim for a sixth consecutive crown.
Latvala’s smiles were contrasted by despair elsewhere in the Toyota team. Ott Tänak, the outsider of the title-chasing trio and rally leader after Friday’s leg, plunged to eighth when a front-left puncture cost 1min 45sec and potentially a fatal blow to his championship bid.
Both gambled on Michelin’s rarely-used rain tyre in the morning, which proved perfect for the wet asphalt roads in the hills near Salou. Dani Sordo briefly replaced Tänak at the top in his Hyundai i20, before Latvala swiftly demoted the Spaniard in the afternoon.
“The feeling is good and I’m confident. Tomorrow’s stages should be more like a pure asphalt rally. You cannot cut the corners so much and the roads should be cleaner,” said Latvala, who won one of the day’s six special stages.
Ogier took his chance with wet weather tyres in the afternoon and gained three places in the penultimate test as rain and mud slowed his rivals. He ended 3.3sec ahead of Citroën part-timer Sebastien Loeb, whose pace steadily quickened on his first asphalt drive in the wet for six years.
Elfyn Evans was a further 1.8sec behind in fourth. Although the Welshman had a troublefree day, he could not prevent the French duo demoting him from a podium place.
Championship leader Thierry Neuville was desperate to match Ogier’s charge and protect his points advantage. He climbed from ninth to fifth in his i20, closing the gap to 8.0sec after a feisty afternoon drive which netted two stage wins.
Sordo fared worst in the deteriorating conditions, losing four places in the penultimate stage to end in sixth. Just 16.5sec covered the top six drivers at the end of the day.
Esapekka Lappi survived a lurid sixth gear spin to end seventh, 14.2sec ahead of team-mate Tänak. Two spins cost a frustrated Craig Breen vital seconds and the Citroën C3 driver slipped to ninth, ahead of an out-of-sorts Andreas Mikkelsen.
Sunday’s finale covers two identical loops of two stages totalling 61.70km. With every point vital in the captivating title fight, the bonus points for the fastest five drivers in the final Santa Marina Power Stage could prove vital ahead of next month’s final round at Kennards Hire Rally Australia.
Standings after Saturday:
1 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h35m01.8s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +4.7s
3 Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroen C3 WRC) +8.0s
4 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +9.8s
5 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +12.7s
6 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +16.5s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +46.5s
8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m00.7s
9 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m37.9s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m07.3s