Jari-Matti Latvala leads Volkswagen Polo R team-mate Sébastien Ogier after a see-saw battle during an action-packed first full day of Rally Argentina.
The lead changed hands three times in four stages before Latvala blitzed his rival in the final test to overnight with a 17.7sec advantage. Caution paid dividends for Kris Meeke who lies third in a Citroen DS3 on his first Argentine WRC outing.
Heavy downpours earlier in the year left the hilly stages littered with rocks and compressions where the rain had washed away the sandy surface. The rough roads took a fearsome toll and five top drivers retired during a day which became a battle for survival for many.
Ogier, who led after last night’s super special stage, stretched his advantage in this morning’s opener to 7.0sec, but Latvala retaliated to lead by 3.3sec at the mid-leg service.
Ogier was back ahead by half a second after the penultimate test, before a stunning time in the final stage propelled Latvala into top spot.
“We had a really good feeling in that stage,” said Latvala. “Miikka (co-driver Anttila) did a perfect job and I really enjoyed it. And when you feel like that, these things can happen.”
Meeke promised a cautious drive after crashing in Portugal last month. However, he was never outside the top five and lies 49.7sec behind Ogier.
Elfyn Evans is fourth on his Argentine debut, a further 2min 40.7sec behind. The Welshman took no risks in his Ford Fiesta RS and is 0.2sec ahead of the similar car of Robert Kubica. The Pole promised to sacrifice speed for survival after a crash-plagued season and duly delivered.
Martin Prokop rounds off the top six in another Fiesta RS.
The carnage among the big names began in the opening stage when Mikko Hirvonen misjudged a pace note and slammed his Fiesta RS into a wall. Mads Østberg hit a rock and damaged the front left wheel of his DS3 too badly to continue.
Dani Sordo dropped 12 minutes in the morning when a turbo pipe came loose, and then retired his Hyundai i20 in the final stage with engine problems. Team-mate Thierry Neuville, who was driving slowly with similar issues, was asked by his team to pull over rather than risk terminal damage.
Finally Andreas Mikkelsen parked his Polo R just before the finish with a reported alternator problem.
Should both restart under Rally 2 rules tomorrow, Mikkelsen and Neuville will be seventh and eighth with WRC 2 duo Nasser Al-Attiyah and Yuriy Protasov rounding off the top 10.
Tomorrow drivers face two identical loops of two stages over faster roads south of the Villa Carlos Paz base, before a repeat of last night’s super special stage. It all adds up to 164.34km of action.