OTT Tänak was king of the pampas for a second day at YPF Rally Argentina as he stretched his lead in this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
He demoralised the opposition to win five of the seven special stages in the Los Gigantes mountain region and boosted his advantage to 46.5sec with Sunday ’s short final leg remaining.
After winning Friday’s final three special stages, the Estonian reeled off three more victories on Saturday morning as thick fog posed a trial of bravery and commitment.
Only a final stage scare prevented him from repeating the hat-trick. A damaged front right shock absorber and power steering problems on his Toyota Yaris forced him to ease off.
“That was really hard. The oil leaked out of the damper and I lost the use of the power steering before it came back. I didn’t feel like I was pushing so much today. I had a great feeling with the car, which was going so well, so why not to enjoy it?” Tänak said.
Thierry Neuville headed the challengers. The Hyundai i20 driver demoted Kris Meeke from second and took no risks on the rocky, rutted gravel tracks.
“I could have done more but it wasn’t necessary,” said the Belgian, who headed team-mate Dani Sordo by 21.7sec.
Neuville and Sordo were the only two drivers to halt the Tänak steamroller, claiming a stage win each. Sordo gained a podium place in the final stage when Meeke conceded more than two minutes and his Citroën C3 plunged to eighth.
“I had to stop and change a puncture. There was a stone in the middle of the road. I saw it but couldn’t avoid it, went over the top of it and punctured straight away,” Meeke explained.
Championship leader Sébastien Ogier was fourth in a Ford Fiesta. The Frenchman was hugely cautious in the morning fog, conceding almost a minute to Tänak in the tough 40km Chuchilla Nevada test.
Andreas Mikkelsen was fifth, the Norwegian happier with his i20’s handling after set-up changes. Esapekka Lappi was next, despite losing 20sec after going off the road following an uncharacteristic pace note error from co-driver Janne Ferm.
The mistake allowed Elfyn Evans ahead but Lappi regained sixth in the final stage. Behind Meeke, Teemu Suninen and WRC 2 leader Kalle Rovanperä completed the leaderboard.
Craig Breen was the day’s major victim. The Irishman rolled his C3 out of sixth and a damaged roll cage brought retirement.
Sunday’s finale is one of the season’s classic days. Two passes through the rock-strewn roads of El Condor sandwich the lunar landscape of Giulio Cesare, both high in the Traslasierra mountains. They add up to just 55.27km, but are some of the year’s toughest roads.
Outright standings after Saturday:
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h58m33.9s
2 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +46.5s
3 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m08.2s
4 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m59.0s
5 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m13.8s
6 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +2m42.9s
7 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m49.1s
8 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) +3m20.4s
9 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +4m17.6s
10 Kalle Rovanpera/Janne Halttunen (Skoda Fabia R5) +10m50.2s