Jari-Matti Latvala holds a slender lead of four-tenths of a second in Rallye de France following a thrilling day that ended with four drivers covered by five seconds ahead of tomorrow's final leg.
Latvala snatched the lead through the final stage tonight to bring his Volkswagen Polo R back to Strasbourg in front of Dani Sordo. The Spaniard lies just 1.1sec clear of Sebastien Ogier, with Sebastien Loeb still chasing victory in his final rally a further 3.5sec adrift.
This 11th round of the WRC blew apart when Thierry Neuville, leading by 13.1sec in a Ford Fiesta RS, slid wide and punctured his rear left tyre in this afternoon’s opening stage. He lost nearly 90sec and dropped out of contention to fifth.
It left Sordo in front, but an increasingly confident Latvala gradually reeled in the Citroen DS3 after a day characterised by constantly changing conditions. Drivers encountered fog, rain, and mud this morning, before temporarily drier roads this afternoon offered consistency until the wet weather returned.
“It’s incredible the kind of fight we’re having,” said Latvala, who has yet to win a stage. “It’s one of the greatest rallies I have been involved in. I was perhaps too cautious on a couple of stages but the main thing is I made no mistakes. I’ve dug out some little things that have been missing from my driving.”
Sordo paid tribute to his rival after the duo fought for tenths of a second throughout the day. “Latvala was really good. I lost time in the last long stage but I’m fighting with the best in the world, so that’s very nice,” he said.
After a lacklustre opening day, Ogier was right back on form. He won five of the seven tests in his Polo R to propel himself into the thick of the fight.
“After yesterday I had a doubt that I would be able to come back, but I had a perfect day. I pushed hard, the car worked well and I had a perfect feeling with it, so I must continue like this tomorrow,” said Ogier.
Loeb lost a few seconds when his DS3 developed understeer this afternoon but earlier claimed his 900th career stage win. “It’s so tight, such a tough fight,” said the Frenchman. “I tried to push hard all day but I wasn’t always happy with the car, myself, everything. But we’re still in the fight so it’s not so bad.”
Neuville was deflated after seeing his hopes of a maiden win shattered, but he bounced back to win the penultimate test. “It’s the first time I’ve suffered this season and I had a good lead and was fighting for the victory. I saw I could be ahead of both Sebastiens, both world champions, so I think we’ve done well,” said the Belgian who is 1min 10.4sec off the lead.
Evgeny Novikov enjoyed a steady day to hold sixth in his Fiesta RS, 2min 16.4sec behind Neuville and 26.7sec ahead of Mikko Hirvonen’s Citroen DS3. Hirvonen struggled to talk as a throat infection worsened, but he holds a 14.1sec advantage over Mads Ostberg’s Fiesta RS.
Andreas Mikkelsen could not get to grips with an understeering Polo R in the wet and slipped a couple of places to ninth, while Czech driver Martin Prokop rounded off the top 10.
Tomorrow’s final leg offers six more tests north of Strasbourg covering 56.58km. There is no mid-leg service and the final stage runs through the streets of Haguenau, Loeb’s home town. Will there be a fairy tale ending for the retiring champion?
Robert Kubica remains way out front in the WRC 2 category following two days of competition at Rallye de France - Alsace.
After fourteen all-asphalt stages, the Pole brought his Citroen DS3 RRC back to service in Strasbourg with a lead of 3m 30.1s over Welshman Elfyn Evans, who dropped out of winning contention when he got a puncture on Friday.
In a glimpse of what might have been, Evans, in a Ford Fiesta R5, was quickest on two of Saturday morning’s tests while Kubica was untouchable through the third. In the afternoon, both drivers won two stages apiece.
Rashid Al Ketbi completes the provisional podium, although the Fiesta R5 driver is a distant 9min 46sec behind Evans.
“The mistake that Evans made yesterday helped us but I'm still driving well and without risks,” said Kubica, who will move top in the WRC 2 championship standings if he wins here.
“It was a difficult day but we had no problems. The stages were quite tricky with a lot of cuts and mud. It was the first time for me driving with these tyres in the wet,” he added.
Evans overcame a technical issue to remain on course for 18 points on Sunday – the same result he achieved at Rallye Deutschland.
“We had a small brake problem but it was manageable,” he explained. “When it happened in the first stage this morning I expected it would get worse but it didn’t, so it hasn't been a big issue. Overall it’s been a good day, I can’t complain. I'm pleased with the progress we made from yesterday.”
Ricardo Trivino is fourth in a Subaru Impreza, 24 minutes behind Kubica, with Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X driver Marco Vallario rounding off the top five.