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PHOTO: Thierry Neuville charges through the rocky Argentine landscape on the way to a narrow victory (WRC pic)

THIERRY Neuville snatched one of the closest FIA World Rally Championship wins in history after a gruelling YPF Rally Argentina on Sunday.

He edged out longtime leader Elfyn Evans by just 0.7sec in a pulsating Power Stage finale when the Welshman clipped a bridge, ending dreams of a maiden victory. Only two rounds have been decided by a smaller margin in the WRC’s 45-year history.

The Hyundai i20 Coupe driver trailed Evans by 11.5sec heading into the last leg of the four-day gravel-surface encounter. Brake problems for Evans combined with Neuville’s attack sent the pair into the final 16.32km test at the famous El Condor separated by just 0.6sec.

Both drivers threw caution to the wind on one of the WRC’s toughest tracks and early split times showed Evans more than three seconds ahead. But as his grip lessened near the finish, his Ford Fiesta swiped a bridge and that handed Neuville a second consecutive success.

“Watching that was the worst time in my life,” Neuville said after viewing Evans’ run from the finish.

“I gave it everything I had but I didn’t have the best tyres because I had been pushing hard for two stages already.”

An emotional Evans, who led by more than a minute on Saturday, said: “I’m gutted to lose by such a fine margin after so many issues. I hit a bridge and that was probably the difference.

“It’s difficult to take now after holding such a big lead, but part of it is my own doing and I need to come back stronger to win in the future.”

Rock-strewn roads took a heavy toll and merely surviving Friday’s opening leg became the aim of many. Ott Tänak’s patient strategy paid off as he steered clear of trouble and thrived on the smoother weekend roads to finish third in another Fiesta, a further 29.2sec back.

Reigning champion Sébastien Ogier made it three M-Sport World Rally Team cars in the top four and the French four-time champion increased his lead in the current series to 16 points after five of 13 rounds.

Jari-Matti Latvala was Evans’ closest challenger early in the event but the Finn slipped back to finish fifth in his Toyota Yaris. Broken power steering completed a torrid weekend for Hayden Paddon, who had claimed his maiden win in Argentina 12 months ago. He was sixth.

Juho Hänninen, Dani Sordo, Mads Østberg and WRC 2 winner Pontus Tidemand completed the leaderboard.

Vodafone Rally de Portugal hosts round six of the championship in Matosinhos, near Porto, on 18 – 21 May.

Overall Classification, YPF Rally Argentina (Rd 5 of 13):

1 T.hierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 3:38:10.6
2 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +0.7
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +29.9
4 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1:24.7
5 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1:48.1
6 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +7:42.7
7 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindstrom (Toyota Yaris WRC) +11:16.9
8 Dani Sordo/Marc Martí (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +14:44.1
9 Mads Østberg/O. Floene (Ford Fiesta WRC) +15:11.3
10 Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Škoda Fabia R5) +17:32.1

FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers’ standings (after Rd 5):

1 Sebastien Ogier 102
2 Jari-Matti Latvala 86
3 Thierry Neuville 84
4 Ott Tanak 66
5 Dani Sordo 51
6 Dani Evans 42
7 Craig Breen 33
8 Hayden Paddon 33
9 Kris Meeke 27
10 Juho Hänninen 15
11 Andreas Mikkelsen 12
12 Stephane Lefebvre 10

FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers’ standings (after Rd 5):

1 M-Sport World Rally Team 162
2 Hyundai Motorsport 140
3 Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC 99
4 Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team 71

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.