PHOTO: Kiwi Hayden Paddon holds an impressive sixth while teammate Neuville leads in Sweden (Hyundai pic)
THIERRY Neuville delivered a masterful drive through Saturday’s final speed test to snatch a slender lead at Rally Sweden.
Armed with new spiked snow tyres on the front of his Hyundai i20, he blitzed rivals Andreas Mikkelsen and Sébastien Ogier to turn a 7.3sec deficit into a 1.5sec advantage with one day remaining in round two of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Day-long leader Mikkelsen held second in a Volkswagen Polo R and teammate Ogier was just 8.1sec further back in third.
“That was one of the best stages I’ve ever driven,” Neuville said.
“I had a big, big push. The new tyres were probably worth three or four seconds and I had a good feeling in the car, it’s so much fun.
“It’ll be hard tomorrow with three tricky stages, but I’m not going to slow down.”
Neuville was more than 30sec adrift of Mikkelsen after three of Saturday’s eight snow-covered special stages near Hagfors. But the Volkswagen driver, who admitted to feeling the pressure of chasing a maiden WRC win, gave away 20sec after touching a snow bank and spinning.
Conditions favoured Neuville in the afternoon as the early starters cleared slush off the driving line and neither road opener Ogier nor Mikkelsen could hold the Belgian at bay as his clever tyre strategy paid dividends.
After restarting in the the morning in fourth, Ogier was up to second within two stages, slashing Mikkelsen’s lead to 1.7sec after his team-mate’s mistakes.
Slushy roads cost valuable seconds during the afternoon but he remained poised to attack in Sunday’s final leg.
Mads Østberg lost third place after slamming Citroen’s DS 3 into a bank in the opening stage and puncturing the left rear tyre. Gearbox problems hindered him all day and he is 53.4sec off the lead in fourth.
Ott Tänak consolidated fifth in a Ford Fiesta RS and Kiwi Hayden Paddon improved the feeling with his Hyundai i20 to stay sixth, more than a minute behind.
Martin Prokop was seventh, despite almost rolling his Fiesta RS after it landed on its nose at a jump. Elfyn Evans held off Kris Meeke in eighth, Meeke grabbing a stage win in the afternoon. Yuriy Protasov completed the leaderboard, despite dropping 30sec after going off.
Jari-Matti Latvala’s troubled weekend continued when he dropped 45sec after spinning his Volkswagen into the snow and the Finn ended the day in 17th.
Sunday’s final leg covers three stages and 46.74km, with the final Power Stage offering bonus points to the fastest three drivers.