Title rivals Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville face a thrilling final day victory showdown at Rally Italia Sardegna after a gripping duel in the sun on Saturday.
They traded seconds across seven dusty and rocky speed tests in the north of the Mediterranean island before Ogier finished with a slender 3.9sec advantage.
Neuville, who heads Ogier in the WRC championship battle by 19 points, claimed three stage victories in his Hyundai i20, compared to Ogier’s two at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta.
Ogier extended his overnight advantage to almost 20sec before an overly-cautious drive through the famous Monte Lerno stage cut his lead to less than 5sec.
As temperatures soared this afternoon, in contrast to yesterday’s torrential rain, both had problems. Ogier stalled his engine at the Ittiri stage start while Neuville punctured in the next test. With just one spare tyre onboard, he had no room for error in the final two stages.
“It’s so tight,” said Ogier. “It was a big push for me this afternoon because I was so angry with the last stage this morning. All the time I lost to Thierry was there. There’s pressure but it’s been like that all weekend and if we want to win we’ll have to fight for it.”
Neuville said: “I knew if I had one more puncture I would lose a lot of time but it was our decision to carry on pushing. That was the risk we had to take and we managed it well - there were a couple of stones I had to avoid. The fight is open and tomorrow will be intense.”
There were battles across the leaderboard. Jari-Matti Latvala and Toyota Gazoo team-mate Esapekka Lappi fought tooth and nail for the final podium place. Latvala’s lead never rose above 7.0sec and he ended the final stage with a 5.3sec advantage.
However, his Yaris stopped on the liaison section back to Alghero with an alternator problem, believed to have been caused by an impact with a rock. Despite the efforts of the Finn and co-driver Miikka Anttila, they could not restart the car and retired.
Hayden Paddon and Mads Østberg dueled for what became fourth following Latvala’s exit. Østberg began the day in front in his Citroën C3, but his Kiwi rival moved his i20 ahead and held off the Norwegian’s afternoon pursuit. The gap between them was 2.1sec.
Craig Breen was sixth in another C3 after a frustrating day, ahead of WRC 2 leader Jan Kopecký. Ott Tänak recovered to eighth after yesterday’s engine damage, despite stopping to change a puncture in the final stage. Martin Prokop and Nicolas Ciamin completed the top 10.
Sunday’s short finale comprises two loops of two stages along the coast north of Alghero. They add up to 42.04km, the action ending with a spectacular Power Stage which runs alongside the beach and offers bonus points to the fastest five drivers.
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