THIERRY Neuville led RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España on Saturday night in a bold bid to carry his FIA World Rally Championship title fight with Ott Tänak into the final round in Australia.
PHOTO: Sébastien Loeb (Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool)
He ended the penultimate leg with a 21.5sec advantage over Hyundai i20 teammate Dani Sordo. Championship leader Tänak lies just 3.1sec further back after demoting Sébastien Loeb’s i20 by 0.6sec in the final speed test.
While Neuville’s lead looks comfortable with only Sunday’s short leg remaining, he is praying his colleagues can repel Tänak’s attack which could secure the Estonian a maiden world crown ahead of Kennards Hire Rally Australia on 14-17 November.
Going into Sunday’s final leg, the Wolf Power Stage could prove decisive in whether Tänak wins the championship this weekend.
Tänak leads the standings with 240 points, while Neuville is on 199. To lift the trophy, Tänak must finish at least 30 points clear of Neuville. Should Neuville remain in the lead in Spain, he’ll win 25 points.
If Tänak avoids drama to finish second, third or fourth, the bonus points gained by both drivers in the rally-closing Wolf Power Stage will be decisive in whether the Estonian secures the crown or if Neuville keeps the title battle alive until Australia.
Assuming both cars reach the Wolf Power Stage unscathed, there are multiple points permutations, meaning a nervous wait for both drivers. If Tänak ends the weekend exactly 30 points clear of Neuville, he wins the championship. Neuville could match his points tally in Australia but the title would still go to the Estonian by virtue of bagging more victories.
After teams transformed their cars from gravel to asphalt set-up on Friday night for the final two days, Neuville won the opening two stages to relegate Loeb, who struggled to replicate the pace he had on Friday’s dirt roads.
The Belgian added another fastest time in the final test to put himself on the cusp of victory. That could prove in vain if Tänak beats Sordo and Loeb, meaning he could secure the crown with bonus points in Sunday’s closing Wolf Power Stage.
“I’ve done my job so far and my teammates are really trying to resist, but obviously Tänak was fast this afternoon. We’re going to try and finish the job we started yesterday morning and let’s see whether Tänak can claim second or if he stays in third,” said Neuville.
Tänak, driving a Toyota Yaris, started the day fifth and a run of four stage victories enabled him to close on the Hyundai trio and set his sights on finishing second o Sunday.
“This morning I wasn’t feeling too relaxed but now I’ve been able to learn a bit and get into a rhythm. We would like to keep the pressure, but to take the time back will be difficult,” said Tänak.
First and second for Hyundai Motorsport at Sunday’s Salou finish would enhance the Korean squad’s manufacturers’ championship lead over Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Jari-Matti Latvala was fifth in another Yaris, the Finn a vital cog in Toyota’s title chase after teammate Kris Meeke crashed in the morning. After demoting Sordo to climb to third, Meeke drifted wide in a left corner, hit a barrier and ripped off a rear wheel.
The Finn suffered understeer but was 22.4sec clear of a frustrated Elfyn Evans, who struggled for pace in his Ford Fiesta.
Sunday’s finale is the shortest of the rally at 74.14km. Two stages are driven either side of service in Salou and the final La Mussara test forms the potentially crucial Wolf Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the fastest five drivers.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / N Gilsoul (Hyundai i20) 2hr 25min 15.8sec
2. D Sordo / C del Barrio ( Hyundai i20) +21.5sec
3. O Tänak / M Järveoja (Toyota Yaris) +24.6sec
4. S Loeb / D Elena (Hyundai i20) +25.2sec
5. J-M Latvala / M Anttila (Toyota Yaris) +46.8sec
6. E Evans / S Martin (Ford Fiesta) +1min 09.2sec