Thierry Neuville led RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España on Saturday night in a bold bid to carry his FIA World Rally Championship title fight with Ott Tänak into the final round.
He ended the penultimate leg with a 21.5sec advantage over Hyundai i20 team-mate Dani Sordo. Championship leader Tänak lies just 3.1sec further back after demoting Sébastien Loeb’s i20 by 0.6sec in the final speed test.
While Neuville’s lead looks comfortable with only Sunday’s short leg remaining, he is praying his colleagues can repel Tänak’s attack which could secure the Estonian a maiden world crown ahead of next month’s final round in Australia.
After teams transformed their cars from gravel to asphalt set-up last night for the final two days, Neuville won the opening two speed tests to relegate Loeb, who struggled to replicate the pace he had on yesterday’s dirt roads.
The Belgian added another fastest time in the final test to put himself on the cusp of victory. That could prove in vain if Tänak beats Sordo and Loeb, meaning he could secure the crown with bonus points in tomorrow’s closing Wolf Power Stage.
“I’ve done my job so far and my team-mates are really trying to resist, but obviously Tänak was fast this afternoon. We’re going to try and finish the job we started yesterday morning and let’s see whether Tänak can claim second or if he stays in third,” said Neuville.
Tänak, driving a Toyota Yaris, started the day fifth and a run of four stage victories enabled him to close on the Hyundai trio and set his sights on finishing second tomorrow.
“This morning I wasn’t feeling too relaxed but now I’ve been able to learn a bit and get into a rhythm. We would like to keep the pressure, but to take the time back will be difficult,” said Tänak.
First and second for Hyundai Motorsport at tomorrow’s Salou finish would enhance the Korean squad’s manufacturers’ championship lead over Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Jari-Matti Latvala was fifth in another Yaris, the Finn a vital cog in Toyota’s title chase after team-mate Kris Meeke crashed this morning. After demoting Sordo to climb to third, Meeke drifted wide in a left corner, hit a barrier and ripped off a rear wheel.
The Finn suffered understeer but was 22.4sec clear of a frustrated Elfyn Evans, who struggled for pace in his Ford Fiesta.
Teemu Suninen was seventh in another Fiesta, nearly three minutes clear of Sébastien Ogier’s Citroën C3. After yesterday’s time loss and with his title hopes in tatters, Ogier focused on test work.
WRC 2 Pro leader Mads Østberg and WRC 2 spearhead Eric Camilli completed the top 10.
Esapekka Lappi did not restart after his C3’s engine problems which caused him to retire yesterday, proved terminal. Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta plunged down the order after limping through the morning with gearbox problems in his Yaris, dropping almost 20 minutes.
Sunday’s finale is the shortest of the rally at 74.14km. Two stages are driven either side of service in Salou and the final La Mussara test forms the potentially crucial Wolf Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the fastest five drivers.