THIERRY Neuville seized a last-minute lead in a captivating opening leg of Xion Rally Argentina on Friday.
PHOTO: Hyundai flies high in Argentina (Hyundai pic)
The FIA World Rally Championship leader snatched the initiative from Ott Tänak when a broken driveshaft on the Estonian’s Toyota Yaris sent him into a time-consuming spin near the finish of the final stage.
Tanak’s lead was wiped out and fastest time for Neuville promoted the Hyundai i20 driver into a 11.9sec advantage over Sébastien Ogier’s Citroën C3. Tänak was a further 1.5sec behind in third.
Persistent rain over the previous 48 hours meant the Calamuchita Valley tests were treacherous. Standing water and huge mud patches provided inconsistent grip and Neuville was shocked to top the leaderboard after languishing in ninth this morning.
“Consistency paid off. I felt I had a good drive in the opening stage and was really surprised when I saw others were faster. Things improved and I drove a good last stage when the road was very rough. We only have a small advantage so nothing is done yet,” he said.
Tänak started the last stage aware of the mechanical problem but limited his time loss until spinning 2km from the finish. Having lost his overnight lead, he had regained top spot in the afternoon, despite regularly losing his brakes in the many water splashes.
Ogier felt his C3 lacked performance and the Frenchman was fortunate to survive a one-wheel landing after clipping a bank on the inside of a tight bend.
Kris Meeke was fourth, 28.1sec off the front, and the third leader of the day. The Yaris driver led for three of the six tests (one was cancelled for safety reasons due to the weather) but could not maintain his pace on rougher afternoon roads. Losing third gear further hampered his efforts.
Andreas Mikkelsen was 1.3sec behind in fifth, despite a morning puncture in his Hyundai i20, with Elfyn Evans rounding off the top six in spite of balance issues in his Ford Fiesta.
Dani Sordo and Jari-Matti Latvala were next up. Latvala was as high as third but a final stage puncture relegated the Finn, starting his 200th world rally.
Teemu Suninen was ninth after losing time when water in his Fiesta’s engine created a misfire and WRC 2 Pro leader Mads Østberg completed the leaderboard.
Esapekka Lappi was the day’s main casualty, crashing his C3 4km from the finish of the last stage after a frustrating day which had left him in ninth.
Saturday’s leg is the longest of the rally. Competitors head into the vast pampas plains and hills of the Punilla Valley for two identical blocks of three stages. The loops are split by a repeat of Friday’s theme park test in host town Carlos Paz. It adds up to 146.62km of action.