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TITLE rivals Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville face a thrilling final-day showdown at Rally Italia Sardegna after finishing just 3.9 seconds apart over seven dusty and rocky stages in the north of the Mediterranean island on Saturday.

PHOTO: Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC climbs into the dusty and rocky stages on the island of Sardinia (Hyundai pic)

Neuville, who heads Ogier in the WRC battle by 19 points, claimed three stage victories in his Hyundai i20, compared to Ogier’s two at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta.

Ogier extended his overnight advantage to almost 20sec before an overly-cautious drive through the famous Monte Lerno stage cut his lead to less than 5sec.

As temperatures soared in the afternoon, in contrast to Friday’s torrential rain, both had problems. Ogier stalled his engine at the Ittiri stage start while Neuville punctured in the next test. With just one spare tyre, he had no room for error in the final two stages.

“It’s so tight. It was a big push for me this afternoon because I was so angry with the last stage this morning. All the time I lost to Thierry was there,” Ogier said.

“There’s pressure but it’s been like that all weekend and if we want to win we’ll have to fight for it.”

Neuville said: “I knew if I had one more puncture I would lose a lot of time but it was our decision to carry on pushing. That was the risk we had to take and we managed it well – there were a couple of stones I had to avoid. The fight is open and tomorrow will be intense.”

There were battles across the leaderboard. Jari-Matti Latvala and Toyota Gazoo teammate Esapekka Lappi fought tooth and nail for the final podium place. Latvala’s lead never rose above 7.0sec and he ended the final stage with a 5.3sec advantage.

However, his Yaris stopped on the liaison section back to the Alghero rally base with an alternator problem, believed to have been caused by an impact with a rock. Despite the efforts of the Finn and co-driver Miikka Anttila, they could not restart the car and retired.

Hayden Paddon and Mads Østberg duelled for what became fourth following Latvala’s exit. Østberg began the day in front in his Citroën C3, but his Kiwi rival moved his i20 ahead and held off the Norwegian’s afternoon pursuit. The gap between them was 2.1sec.

Craig Breen was sixth in another C3 after a frustrating day..

Sunday’s short finale comprises two loops of two stages along the coast north of Alghero. They add up to 42.04km, the action ending with a spectacular Power Stage which runs alongside the beach and offers bonus points to the fastest five drivers.

Outright standings after Saturday:

1 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) 3h02m16.9s
2 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3.9s
3 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +54.2s
4 Hayden Paddon/Seb Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m01.8s
5 Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +2m03.9s
6 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +3m13.6s
7 Jan Kopecky/Pavel Dresler (Skoda Fabia R5) +10m41.4s
8 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +10m48.3s
9 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +12m27.4s
10 Martin Prokop/Jan Tomanek (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +13m02.1s

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.