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KRIS Meeke strengthened his lead over Sébastien Ogier at Rally Guanajuato Mexico on Saturday to take a 30.9sec advantage into tomorrow’s short final leg.

Just two stages and 55 kms tomorrow stand between Meeke and a victory that would help redeem Citroën’s unexpectedly poor start to the 2017 WRC season.

The Northern Irishman won just one of the nine Saturday speed tests in his Citroën C3, most on dirt roads in the mountains near León, but it was decisive. While Meeke carried out a planned attack to perfection, Ogier spun his Ford Fiesta and a deficit of just over 20sec became almost twice that.

The duo traded seconds through the opening four special stages before Meeke pounced. Ogier promised it would not be an “all or nothing” day and after pirouetting at a hairpin bend he signalled his challenge was over.

Meeke said it had been a perfect weekend so far.

“That was going to be the defining loop of the rally. I had to make it stick on this loop and it worked,” said Meeke, who gambled with hard-compound Michelin tyres despite the threat of rain. Fortunately for him, it stayed dry.

Monte-Carlo victor Ogier won two tests and ended 39.6sec clear of Thierry Neuville, who also won a stage. A misfire which slowed Neuville’s Hyundai i20 Coupe on Friday night, along with team-mates Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo, was traced to a blocked fuel filter and all three cars ran cleanly today.

Neuville regretted opting for soft tyres in Saturday’s afternoon loop when forecast rain failed to arrive, but with a large gap in front and behind, an error-free day kept him on course for strong points.

Ott Tänak was fourth in a Fiesta. The Estonian struggled for confidence in his car’s set-up this morning but headed a frustrated Hayden Paddon. The Kiwi punctured after hitting a rock and experimented with new settings in a bid to find his pace.

Jari-Matti Latvala, winner in Sweden last time out, overhauled Toyota Yaris teammate Juho Hänninen for sixth in the penultimate stage. Latvala overcame morning brake problems and punctured after hitting the same rock as Paddon.

Just finishing was a victory for Hänninen. Struck down by sickness, he persevered and by the day’s end his health was improving.

Dani Sordo was eighth. The Spaniard won the first two stages and came within 0.9sec of a clean sweep of the morning tests. His fortunes looked even brighter after a 10-minute penalty imposed on Friday night was removed, but a puncture on the liaison section after SS12 meant he tackled the following test with his car’s boot open after a hurried change.

Elfyn Evans and WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand completed the leaderboard, Evans winning two asphalt stages late in the day.

Stéphane Lefebvre crashed his C3 out of sixth while Lorenzo Bertelli rolled his Ford Fiesta. He continued but well down the order.

Friday’s overheating problems that affected many runners disappeared with cooler air temperatures and as teams used more tolerant engine settings.

Sunday’s final leg comprises two tests. After a mid-morning start, crews drive the 32.96km La Calera ahead of the 21.94km Derramadero live TV Power Stage, which offers bonus points for the fastest five drivers.

Overall standings after Saturday:

1. Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) + 2:47:33.3
2. Sébastien Ogier / Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +30.9
3. Thierry Neuville / Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai 120 Coupe WRC) +1:10.5
4. Ott Tänak / Martin Järveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1:32.9 +2:12.6
5. Hayden Paddon / John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3:25.5
6. Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +4:32.9
7. Juho Hänninen / Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +4:32.9
8. Dani Sordo / Marc Marti (Hyundai 120 Coupe WRC) +5:16.1
9. Elfyn Evans / Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +6:32.7 +8:22.1
10. Pontus Tidemand / Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +9:26.4

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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