Volkswagen's Sebastien Ogier will start Saturday's final leg of Neste Oil Rally Finland with a 38 second lead after a perfectly-managed performance on today's nine stages.
The Frenchman began Friday’s action second in his Polo R, trailing Ford Fiesta RS driver Thierry Neuville by 5.2sec, and nestled near the top of a pack of seven drivers separated by less than 23 seconds.
Things remained tight all morning, with Ogier trading stage wins with Citroen DS3 driver Mikko Hirvonen and Mads Ostberg in a Fiesta RS, so that just 11.4 seconds covered the top four at the midpoint service.
But it was all change in the afternoon, when Ogier upped his pace on the rutted surface of the repeated stages, winning all of them while one-by-one his rivals hit trouble.
Overnight leader Neuville lost the position on today’s opener, but remained close until the 13km Mokkipera (SS13) when he slipped more than 30 seconds behind after driving most of the stage with a punctured left front tyre.
Another tyre related-problem followed on SS14. “Without the puncture it was an okay day,” said the Belgian. “It was a shame, but okay that’s rallying. I don’t have that many but this time it’s happened.”
Ostberg is third, less than one second behind Neuville. The Norwegian was right with Ogier until SS15 - the day’s final forest stage - when he hit a rock, shattered his Fiesta’s front left wheel and dropped 45 seconds.
“We’re still here, and I’m happy about that,” he said. “It was a big shame but you know, punctures happen and it’s just unfortunate. There’s nothing we can do. Okay, we know we have the speed to beat Thierry tomorrow, so that’s what we’ll do.”
The winner here in 2009, Hirvonen is hoping things will go his way on the remaining eight stages. “There’s still a long and fast day to go. My plan is simple – to go flat out and try and catch the guys in front,” he said.
Citroen’s stand-in driver Kris Meeke is fifth on his debut in a DS3 World Rally Car. The Brit was slowed on SS10 when he caught - but was unable to pass - the damaged Ford of Evgeny Novikov, but was second-fastest on two stages.
“I’ve had plenty of hard days in the WRC over the years but this is the best hard day I’ve ever had,” he grinned. “It’s so, so satisfying to be with a proper team and in a proper car – I’ve always wanted an opportunity like this. There’s more to come, and we’re improving step by step.”
Jarkko Nikara is sixth in a Prodrive-prepared Mini JCW, and the highest placed privateer.
Andreas Mikkelsen was seventh until the penultimate stage when he retired his Volkswagen Polo R after the finish, the car having shed its left rear wheel and suspension.
Instead the position is held by Citroen works team driver Dani Sordo, who struggled for most of the day. “It’s difficult to know why I haven’t had a good feeling but we’ll keep pushing,” he said.
Jari Ketomaa is eighth, with Evgeny Novikov ninth after his crash on stage 10. After handling problems on day one, and driving this morning’s stages with front-wheel drive only, P-G Andersson had a better afternoon to return his Fiesta RS to service in 15th.
Jari-Matti Latvala restarted today under Rally 2 rules after his leg one retirement. The Volkswagen driver had a good run but is more than 20 minutes behind the leaders as the last WRC runner.
Czech Ford Fiesta RS driver Martin Prokop had been ninth until he retired after SS11 with an overheating engine. He joined Hanninen on Friday’s retirement list, the Finn stopping with broken suspension after SS9.
Jari Ketomaa continued his domination of the WRC 2 category by winning eight of today’s nine stages to increase his lead to 70.2sec in the new Ford Fiesta R5. Poland’s Robert Kubica lies second in a Citroen DS3 RRC with New Zealander Hayden Paddon completing the podium 1min 55sec further adrift in a Skoda Fabia S2000.