Deep in the Finnish forests, today’s action saw a return of the types of stages which make this event so iconic.
Qatar M-Sport’s Thierry Neuville and Mads Østberg are still firmly in contention at Neste Oil Rally Finland. The Ford Fiesta RS WRC drivers both hold a podium position at the end of Day 2 – Neuville second and Østberg third – and with tomorrow’s final leg the most daunting of all, the pairing are still flying high.
Deep in the Finnish forests, today’s action saw a return of the types of stages which make this event so iconic. Wide open roads interspersed with flashes of narrower, trickier sections were the order of the day – and once again, Neuville and Østberg did not disappoint.
Using the first pass to double check the notes, the Belgian – who is partnered by compatriot Nicolas Gilsoul – had to forfeit his early lead. But despite finding himself in fourth place at midday service, he was far from out of contention. With just over 10 seconds separating him from the lead, the youngster was keen to add another podium to his repertoire.
An unfortunate puncture on the second pass of Mokkipera (SS13) temporarily halted his charge. But as both Mikko Hirvonen and Østberg also encountered some time loss, a string of top-times was enough to propel Neuville back to second place – just over half a minute short of victory with all still to play for.
In the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, Østberg had a day of mixed fortunes. With the longer, more traditional stages suiting the Norwegian’s Scandinavian style, he flew from third to first on the day’s opening stage (SS7). Although briefly losing the lead by 0.2 seconds on SS8, the 25-year-old was back in control at midday service.
With a slender 0.8 second lead going into the afternoon, Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson had to make a decision: maintain their reasonably conservative approach, or take more risks in pursuit of victory. Finding it difficult to adapt their technique to the newly-formed ruts, the pairing opted for the former.
But whilst consolidating a strong second place, a puncture on SS14 meant Østberg had to settle for third. With just 0.8 seconds between him and Neuville – and 39 seconds shy of first place – anything can happen. Rest assured, Østberg and Andersson will be keen to reignite the event’s tradition of Scandinavian success during tomorrow’s final phase.
Regrettably, there was misfortune on an even greater scale for Østberg’s team-mate Evgeny Novikov. Drifting wide after a high-speed crest on SS8, the Russian went off the road into an inconveniently placed log pile. The heavy impact caused significant damage to the front end and windscreen of his Fiesta RS WRC, but he and co-driver Ilka Minor did well to navigate their way through the remainder of the loop.
Making it back to service, M-Sport’s expert team of technicians made light work of what – to the untrained eye – was a seemingly impossible task. With his Fiesta back on the stages, the Muscovite spent the afternoon recovering positions – six to be exact – in search of a strong points haul.
Elsewhere, in WRC 2, it was an eventful day for the Ford Fiesta R5 of Elfyn Evans and Daniel Barritt. Having had a good run through the first day, the Welshman suffered a suspected engine oil leak on SS10. Getting the car back to service, the M-Sport engineers unfortunately found the issue to be terminal and Evans will take no further part in the event.
Thierry Neuville (2nd): “Today has been a good day. I think I was sleeping a little bit in the first stage [SS7], but once I found the rhythm I felt really confident, especially this afternoon. But then we got a puncture on SS13. When we landed a jump the tyre came off the rim and we had to slow down a bit. It was a shame, but this is rallying and sometimes these things happen.
“Of course I want to fight to stay on the podium tomorrow, but it will be a really difficult day. On ‘Ouninpohja’ last year we lost a minute and a half to the fastest drivers and I think it will be difficult for us again this year. We are still working with the pacenotes, but of course we will try.
“If we are still on the podium tomorrow night I think it will be another great result for us – whether it’s second, third or first, it doesn’t matter.”
Mads Østberg (3rd): “I’m going to try and get second place back tomorrow, but Thierry [Neuville] has been going really well. It’s a big fight. I think we did a good job today – we pulled away from him in the morning and had a pretty good gap. But then we had a puncture on SS14 and the gap was back to practically nothing!
“I will definitely push tomorrow; I think with what we have done today second is certainly possible. But honestly without any problems – or punctures – for Sébastien [Ogier], I think that is the best we can do this weekend.”
Evgeny Novikov (9th): “Obviously with the off this morning there was not a lot we could do this afternoon. We’ve just been checking the pacenotes, gaining experience and trying to gain back as much time and as many positions as possible.
“I did try to push on the second loop – especially the first two stages [SS11 and SS12] – but for some reason the times just weren’t coming. I felt like we had a clean run with no mistakes, so I’m not sure why the time loss was so high. We’ll have a look with the team this evening and see if we can get back on the pace for tomorrow.”
Elfyn Evans (DNF): “We’ve had a few problems today but we don’t know exactly what the issue is. All we know for the moment is that the car stopped on the last of the four stages this morning [SS10].
“It is obviously very disappointing as the chassis and general feeling were very good. Jari [Ketomaa] has proven how competitive the car is so it’s disappointing not to be fighting for the top positions anymore.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE: “It’s been another impressive day for both Mads [Østberg] and Thierry [Neuville]. They were both very unlucky with the punctures, but there is still all to play for tomorrow. As we saw today, anything can still happen and with the toughest day left to run this event is far from over.”