THIERRY Neuville holds a comfortable lead heading for the final leg of Xion Rally Argentina after a troubled day for closest rivals Ott Tänak and Sébastien Ogier.
PHOTO: Ott Tänak’s challenge was stopped by a failed alternator (Jaanus Ree/WRC Media pic)
The Belgian ended the longest leg of this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship with a 45.7sec advantage over Hyundai i20 team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen on a stellar day for the Korean manufacturer.
Neuville fended off a charging Tänak on Saturday morning after the Estonian made light work of demoting Ogier and climbing to second.
His lead was slashed to less than seven seconds, but Tänak’s attack ended when his Toyota Yaris stopped with alternator problems.
Earlier, Ogier broke his Citroën C3’s power steering after hitting a stone gate pillar when he became confused over which route to follow at a cattle grid. He dropped almost a minute and left Neuville on course for a second straight WRC win.
“We can start using the word comfortable for the gap we have, but tomorrow’s stages are far from comfortable. They are rough, tricky and narrow so we need to keep our concentration and rhythm. We just need to keep it calm and in the middle of the road,” Neuville said.
The water and mud of Friday was gone, replaced by blue skies and bright sunshine. The fast pampas roads in the Punilla Valley dried quickly, but grip was still inconsistent through the early morning speed tests until temperatures reached 23°C.
Mikkelsen enjoyed his best day for some time. He won two stages and capitalised on the problems of others, despite swiping a bank and having to stem a gearbox oil leak.
Kris Meeke headed a closely-packed trio in third, a further 17.5sec behind.
He lost 20sec in the morning after brake problems in his Yaris. He struggled to slow the car entering a watersplash and hit the same bank as Mikkelsen, limping through the next test with a broken rear wheel.
After plunging to sixth, a fired-up Ogier won two of the afternoon’s three stages to move up to fourth, 6.0sec clear of Dani Sordo in a third i20. Jari-Matti Latvala completed the top six in another Yaris, despite a slow puncture.
Teemu Suninen overcame intermittent intercom problems in his Ford Fiesta to hold seventh. WRC 2 Pro leader Mads Østberg, Tänak and WRC 2 leader Pedro Heller completed the leaderboard.
Elfyn Evans retired from sixth after rolling his Ford Fiesta heavily. He and co-driver Scott Martin were unhurt, but their car came to rest below the road with the sump guard ripped from the chassis.
Sunday’s 53.16km finale heads into the rugged Traslasierra mountains for one of the WRC’s classic days. Two passes through the El Cóndor test, the second of which forms the Wolf Power Stage, sandwich the lunar-like landscapes of Mina Clavero.