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A REJUVENATED Thierry Neuville banished memories of a torrid start to the season to lead Rally Italia Sardegna on Friday night after an enthralling duel with Jari-Matti Latvala.

The lead changed hands on every rough-road speed test as the pair fought tooth-and-nail in intense heat. Neuville eventually eased ahead in the late afternoon to eke an 11.1sec advantage in his Hyundai i20 as Latvala fought handling issues.

Neuville scored points only twice in the opening five WRC rounds, but he and Latvala were aided by good grip on roads cleaned of slippery dry gravel by those ahead in the start order, reports.

Latvala and championship leader Sébastien Ogier swapped the lead during the morning but Latvala ended the four stages 0.8 sec. ahead of Neuville.

They traded top spot in the afternoon before fastest time in the final two stages put Neuville clear.

“I think everyone is happy to see us back in front,” Neuville said.

“I was helped by the cleaner roads in the morning, but in the afternoon we kept good pace and that increased our confidence. I hope we can continue in the same rhythm tomorrow. We had many issues at the end of last year and this year and it’s well-deserved.”

Latvala battled an understeering Volkswagen Polo R, but still won two stages compared to Neuville’s four.

“I can’t get out of the corners properly and the car is difficult to drive. It got worse in the afternoon. I couldn’t attack and the tyres were wearing,” he said.

Road opener Ogier gambled with soft compound Michelin tyres when temperatures were cooler in the morning to try to improve grip on the slippery gravel. He held the leading duo in check but slipped back during the afternoon to end 40.3sec off the lead.

Andreas Mikkelsen overhauled Mads Østberg in the final stage to grab fourth by 1.0sec in his Polo R, Østberg’s decision to carry two spare wheels upsetting the balance of his Ford Fiesta RS. Dani Sordo completed the top six, a further 20.1sec behind.

WRC 2 leader Umberto Scandola was seventh ahead of Henning Solberg, who lost time with a sticking throttle in his Fiesta RS. Ott Tänak and Esapekka Lappi completed the leaderboard.

Hayden Paddon rolled heavily down a hillside into retirement, Eric Camilli dropped several minutes with a broken rear differential and Kevin Abbring struggled all morning in two-wheel drive when the propshaft broke on his Hyundai i20 before the opening stage.

Saturday’s marathon leg comprises more than half the rally’s distance. After a 5.30am start, drivers tackle three stages near Budduso, which are repeated in the afternoon after service. The last test of each loop is the classic 44.26km Monte Lerno, featuring the spectacular Micky’s Jump.

Overall Classification after Day One:

1. T. Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai New Generation i20 WRC) 1:14:03.2
2. J. M. Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +11.1
3. S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +40.3
4. A. Mikkelsen / A. Jaeger (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +57.5
5. M. Østberg / O. Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +58.5
6. D. Sordo / M. Marti (Hyundai New Generation i20 WRC) +1:18.6
7. U. Scandola / G. d’Amore (Škoda Fabia R5) +2:29.1
8. H. Solberg / I. Minor (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +2:32.5
9. O. Tanak / R. Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +2:35.6
10. E. Lappi / J. Fern (Škoda Fabia R5) +2:39.2

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.