Kris Meeke and Mads Østberg shared the fastest times through the final two speed tests of Saturday morning at Neste Rally Finland but it was Meeke who returned to mid-leg service in Jyväskylä with the biggest smile on his face.
Stage info: SS15/16
SS15: Pihlajakoski 1, 14.51km
After the challenges posed by Ouninpohja and Päijälä, drivers will be happy with this less challenging test. It’s still fast though, the opening 9.6km on wide roads with plenty of small crests. It narrows after that, but it is still wider than last year as a result of drivers making cuts.
SS16: Saalahti 1, 4.23km
Short but sweet. It was 1991 when this stage was last used in virtually the same format. Two left junctions near the start could cause problems and there are plenty of bends near the finish. On such a short stage it is impossible to gain much time, but easy to lose seconds at the junctions.
The rally was still buzzing about his incredible performance in Ouninipohja earlier this morning and Meeke’s thoughts turned to how he could control his 36.4sec lead over Jari-Matti Latvala through this afternoon’s four repeated stages and the final four tests tomorrow.
“Now we really have to do a job. We have to manage our position and that’s the difficult part of the job. We did it when we won in Portugal earlier this year and in Argentina last year and we’ll use that experience on this one,” said Meeke.
The DS 3 pilot won Pihlajakoski by 0.5sec from Sébastien Ogier before setting seventh fastest time in Saalahti, but only 1.0sec slower than stage winner Østberg.
Saalahti offered a harder surface than the loose three tests that had gone before, but Latvala was trying to put the problem of road cleaning out of his mind.
“Third on the road and it’s still slippery in places,” he said after Pihlajakoski. “I’m trying to maintain the speed and not think about the cleaning effect too much. If you do, it can affect your driving.”
Craig Breen’s time through the earlier Päijälä was readjusted after he stopped at Eric Camilli’s accident and the Irishman is up to third in his DS 3 ahead of a cluster of five drivers split by only 12.5sec.
Thierry Neuville heads the quintet despite the continued battle against his ill-handling Hyundai i20. Team-mate Hayden Paddon is 0.9sec behind in fifth, the Kiwi happier with the balance at the rear of his i20. Østberg is sixth in a Ford Fiesta RS with Andreas Mikkelsen and Ott Tänak close behind.
Estonian Tänak is facing another recovery battle after dropping almost 20sec with a rear left puncture in his Fiesta RS in Pihlajakoski. Esapekka Lappi and Kevin Abbring complete the leaderboard.