Belgium's Thierry Neuville holds the overnight lead of Neste Oil Rally Finland after a thrilling and extremely close battle on this afternoon's opening six stages.
Neuville, who drives a Ford Fiesta RS for the Qatar World Rally Team, was quickest on two of today’s all-gravel tests, but kept out of trouble in some unusually rough and slippery conditions to end the day 5.2sec clear of championship leader Sebastien Ogier with two days of the rally still to go.
The Volkswagen duel between Ogier and his team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala meant they were the pace-setters on today’s opening test, run 130 kilometres south of the rally’s base in Jyvaskyla, but that all changed on the second when Latvala wrecked his Polo R’s suspension on a rock and Ogier immediately backed-off his attack.
Latvala nursed his damaged car through the next two stages before admitting defeat and retiring from the day.
A fastest time for Neuville on SS2 moved him into a joint rally lead with Citroen ace Mikko Hirvonen, and he remained tied at the top after SS3 (with Ogier) and a badly rutted SS4 (with Hirvonen again) before finally pulling clear on SS5, helped in part by a sharp rain shower that hampered Hirvonen’s progess.
Rounding off the day with fastest time at the Killeri Super special, Neuville was understandably delighted with his progress. “It’s been a good day, I took no big risks and I think I drove quite cleverly,” he said. “In the rainy stage I slowed down in some places and managed my pace quite well. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Ogier is keen to restart tomorrow too, when the action shifts to some classic Finland stages, rather than today’s selection of shorter sprints. “I think Friday is the real start of the rally,” said the Frenchman. “We’ll need to be awake and I’m sure we’ll have more fun tomorrow.”
Ford Fiesta RS driver Mads Ostberg is third overnight, just 3.7 sec behind Ogier, and satisfied to have got through the day in one piece and with just one small mistake when he – like many others - overshot a rutted junction on SS4. “It’s been tough and the last stage especially was so, so slippery, but we’re here. It was important to get through today and be in a good position for tomorrow.”
Hirvonen ended the day 4.9 seconds further back in fourth, and still furious about losing time on SS5 when his place in the start order coincided with a heavy downpour. Can he make up 13.8 seconds tomorrow? “We will see. I’ll try,” is all the Finn was saying at the end of the stage.
Newly appointed Hyundai test driver Juho Hanninen is fifth in a Fiesta RS, 3.2sec behind Hirvonen. “Okay, but I cannot be completely happy,” said the Finn. “We’ve seen how fast Thierry is in the same car, so there’s room for improvement for tomorrow.”
On his first rally in a DS3 World Rally Car, Kris Meeke is an impressive sixth overall - less than four seconds behind factory driver Hirvonen. The Brit was drafted in as a replacement for absent Qatar World Rally Team driver Khalid Al Qassimi and produced one of the stand out performances of the day – with his only problem a puncture on Stage two. “I haven’t done a rally for so long and I’m over the moon. I feel so at home in this DS3, I just want to drive it more and more!” he said.
Ford Fiesta RS driver Evgeny Novikov is seventh, but in such a tight race still just 20.7 seconds off the lead. “Not the best day for us, with lots of ruts and the rain but there are still two long days to come and we will fight for sure for a better place,” said the Russian.
Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen is eighth, and happy to be close to the pace of the cars ahead, while Dani Sordo is down in ninth after a lacklustre day in his Citroen. “Tomorrow we start from zero again,” said the Spaniard.
Jarko Nikara is ninth, the Finn’s Mini hampered by a faulty turbo solenoid on the opening stage, with P-G Andersson rounding out the top ten in a Fiesta RS with extremely wayward handling. “Too many spins today - I just want to get back to service,” said the deflated Swede. “I don’t know what the problem is, it’s something we have to look at it.”
Ford Fiesta RS driver Martin Prokop is 12th with Riku Tahko in a Mini JCW the final WRC runner 13 minutes off the pace after a throttle cable problem on SS5.
Jari Ketomaa dominated the WRC 2 category to win four of the six stages in the new Ford Fiesta R5. The Finn, who was an amazing fourth quickest overall in the final test, is 24.0sec clear of Robert Kubica’s Citroen DS3 RRC, with Elfyn Evans third in another Fiesta R5, a further 2.0sec behind.