Latvala was slightly hesitant through the opening brace of tests while he found the “feeling” on board his Ford Fiesta RS WRC. But a quartet of stage wins has put him out front by 12.1s heading into Saturday’s seven runs.
Indeed, it’s been a day dominated by the works Ford squad with Petter Solberg moving into an early lead after going quickest on the first two stages. The Norwegian, a four-time winner in Wales, holds second with Citroen’s multiple world champion Sebastien Loeb 9.2s further back after conceding that he couldn’t live with the pace of the Fords on the slippery gravel stages.
“I’ve been trying to push,” said Latvala, who survived clouting a pile of logs on stage two. “The target was trying to make the difference to the Citroens and I’m pleased with the performance. The first two stages I was not at my best but then I started to catch the feeling. I was very pleased because the car was going really well, I’m enjoying it and the car is great to drive. I haven’t had this feeling for a long, long time.”
Loeb, who is on course for his ninth world title and can help Citroen secure its eighth world crown in Wales, carried two spare tyres for each loop in the event of his soft compound tyres losing performance in the drying conditions. Latvala and Solberg both relied on one spare. “I was flat out everywhere but there was no chance to catch the Fords,” said Loeb. But I’m not concerned because I don’t need to win.”
Mads Ostberg is fourth overnight in his Adapta Fiesta having lost precious seconds in the morning when he slowed in the mistaken belief he’d picked up a puncture on stage two. His decision to use an old set of pace notes on stage three also led to a loss of confidence. Mikko Hirvonen is fifth in the second factory Citroen with Ott Tanak sixth despite reporting a powersteering glitch in his M-Sport Fiesta.
Russian Evgeny Novikov is seventh on his first rally with stand-in co-driver Ilka Minor. Thierry Neuville, who has run at the head of the field throughout the day, is eighth with Matthew Wilson - back in the WRC for the first time since Rallye Monte-Carlo in January - holding a solid ninth overall. Martin Prokop is 10th despite spending much of the day without sixth gear on his privateer Fiesta.
Chris Atkinson is 11th for WRC Team MINI Portugal with Sebastien Ogier 12th in his Volkswagen Motorsport-run Skoda Fabia S2000. Nasser Al-Attiyah is 13th for the Qatar World Rally Team with Super 2000 World Rally Championship leader Craig Breen 14th.
Saturday’s competitive action gets underway at 09:02hrs local time consists of two runs through the Crychan, Epynt and Halfway stages, plus the all-asphalt Celtic Manor superspecial, which brings the day’s action to a close at 18:30hrs. The top 14 crews will run in reverse order with Paulo Nobre going first followed by South African Jan Habig.