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?