Elfyn Evans remained on course to score his maiden WRC victory at Dayinsure Wales Rally GB after dominating Saturday’s penultimate leg.
He is chasing a first home victory for 17 years and at the same time lending a massive helping hand to team-mate Sébastien Ogier in his quest for a fifth consecutive world title.
The Welshman won five of the six wet and muddy morning speed tests in mid-Wales, before surviving a torrid evening in thick fog and rain to return his Ford Fiesta to the overnight halt in Deeside with a 53.1sec lead over Ogier.
The early dank conditions were a present for Evans, whose Fiesta was fitted with a new range of tyres developed for such weather.
“This morning we had perfect conditions, we couldn’t have wished for better. But I’m glad tonight is over. It was absolutely mad in the fog and I couldn’t see a thing in places,” he said.
Ogier was a relieved man. He drove cautiously, knowing victory for Evans could be enough to deny Neuville and Ott Tänak the points they need to take the title battle to next month’s final round in Australia.
But the penultimate Aberhirnant stage was engulfed in fog and Ogier hit a stone, puncturing his Fiesta’s front left wheel and damaging the brakes.
The Frenchman worked furiously (picture below) to remove the brake disc before easing through the final test. “I did the stage with only three brakes, it’s a miracle we’re here now. We couldn’t push because we had no power on the brakes. We had to brake early all the time,” he said.
Neuville threw caution to the wind to overhaul Tänak and Ogier for second in a bid to keep his championship chances alive, until the weather delivered a cruel blow and dropped him behind Ogier by 0.5sec.
“We probably had the most fog. I was trying but it was impossible to see. It’s so disappointing. We’ve been fighting hard and never given up and then you get this,” he said.
Tänak fared even worse in the fog. He plunged from third to sixth, although just 13sec cover five cars behind Evans.
Jari-Matti Latvala was fourth, 4.1sec adrift of Neuville, as he finally began to get on top of the traction and understeer issues that have blighted him all weekend.
Andreas Mikkelsen was fifth in another i20, the Norwegian 5.9sec further back.
Behind Tänak was Kris Meeke, who dropped back after a messy day which included two overshoots and an engine stall in his Citroën C3.
Hayden Paddon was eighth, despite being delayed by hydraulic problems in his i20, after trading places with team-mate Dani Sordo on a regular basis.
Esapekka Lappi split the pair, as Sordo dropped 90sec in the fog to complete the leaderboard in 10th.
The only major retirement was Juho Hänninen, who stopped with broken suspension in his Yaris.
Sunday’s finale comprises five forest tests in north Wales covering 41.17km. The final test alongside the picturesque Llyn Brenig reservoir forms the Power Stage, with bonus points awarded to the fastest five drivers.