KRIS Meeke leads RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España by 13.0sec from Sébastien Ogier, whose bid for a fifth consecutive FIA Wor,d Rally Championship looked stronger than ever after main rival Thierry Neuville hit trouble on Saturday.
Meeke’s only win of a troubled year was in Mexico in March, but he caught his rivals asleep when the action switched to smooth asphalt after a dusty Friday.
He won the opening speed test to vault from third to first. He controlled his advantage through the remaining six special stages near Salou as a quartet of startled rivals fought furiously for the remaining podium places.
“This morning we were able to catch everyone on the hop. This afternoon was all about not doing anything stupid,” the Citroën C3 driver said.
“I knew that coming off the gravel yesterday we had to catch them early because it’s so close and hard to make a difference on asphalt.”
Ogier, Neuville, Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo traded places on every stage in a thrilling battle for second, which left the foursome covered by a single second at one point.
Handling issues blighted Ogier’s Ford Fiesta in the morning. Constant tinkering with the set-up paid dividends and a strong afternoon contained three stage wins and gave him a 1.5sec advantage over team-mate Tänak.
The Estonian also overcame handling troubles and had to replace his damaged gearbox with a gravel-specification version. He swiped a concrete block on the inside of a tight bend in the penultimate stage but escaped serious damage.
Neuville’s Hyundai i20 understeered badly in the morning but worse followed when its hydraulic system failed and he stopped to make repairs on a liaison section.
The engine refused to fire up and in his haste to reach the next test on time, Neuville spun and damaged the rear. He was three minutes late, incurring a 30-second penalty which saw him plunge to eighth.
Teammates Sordo and overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen hit the same block as Tänak. Sordo retired with broken steering while the impact ripped a wheel from Mikkelsen’s car.
The Norwegian, who had led overnight, was unable to match his gravel pace on asphalt and had slipped to sixth.
Juho Hänninen won two stages in a Toyota Yaris to climb from eighth to fourth. He was pursued by Neuville, who recovered to fifth but looks set to yield more points to Ogier in their championship duel.
Six more stages covering 74.26km await in Sunday’s finale, which is divided into two identical loops of three. The final Santa Marina test forms the live TV Power Stage with bonus points for the fastest five crews.
Positions after leg 2:
1 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) 2h16m21.1s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +13.0s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +14.5s
4 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +34.0s
5 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +53.2s
6 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m22.1s
7 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m39.8s
8 Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 WRC): +2m00.7s
9 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +3m15.1s
10 Eric Camilli/Benjamin Veillas (Ford Fiesta R5) +5m40.8s
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