Thierry Neuville dominated Saturday’s second leg of RallyRACC – Rally de España to close on a second FIA World Rally Championship victory of the season.
He was virtually untouchable on the flowing asphalt speed tests in the Costa Daurada hills to extend a slender 0.7 sec overnight lead into a 16.4 sec advantage over Elfyn Evans with one day remaining of this penultimate round.
After winning the final three special stages of Friday’s opening leg, the Hyundai i20 pilot added five more consecutive fastest times to his tally before a rejuvenated Sébastien Ogier broke the Belgian’s winning run. Neuville rounded off the day with another stage win.
“It wasn’t an easy day,” he said. “Conditions were really tricky this morning with a little bit of fog and very dirty stages, with a lot of gravel. It’s always nice to be on the first step of the podium but tomorrow is a challenging day and nothing is done yet.”
Evans, who led on Friday before Neuville hit top gear, could do nothing but retain control of second with a 22.3 sec advantage over Toyota Yaris team-mate and championship leader Ogier. That would be sufficient to take their fight for the title to the final round in Italy.
“I’m not happy, it’s not the day we wanted,” said a frustrated Evans. “I didn’t feel that comfortable this morning but it was even a bit worse this afternoon. We had some areas where we didn’t feel so comfortable and we tried to address it. We did improve some areas where we were struggling, but I lost the general balance of the car as a result.”
As Evans floundered, Ogier prospered. The Frenchman struggled for pace this morning as Dani Sordo came within two-tenths of snatching third, but a raft of changes at mid-leg service transformed his performance.
“Better late than never!” he said. “It was a tough first half of the rally. We’ve been working a lot on the car and now I’m starting to feel better. I’ve never changed so much on a car during a rally but at least we’ve finally found better pace.”
He rebuilt his advantage over Sordo’s i20, only to see it reduced to 1.2 sec after stalling his engine in the final stage.
Kalle Rovanperä was 32.4 sec behind Sordo in fifth. The young Finn was lucky to escape a huge ‘moment’ this morning when his Yaris speared into a field at high speed. “It was maybe one of the biggest I’ve ever had,” he said.
Rovanperä had room to breathe after Adrien Fourmaux lost more than 10 minutes when he clipped a barrier and punctured a tyre on his Ford Fiesta. After replacing the wheel, he battled on with a broken driveshaft, a damaged steering arm and suspension issues.
Team-mate Gus Greensmith conceded more than a minute with a morning puncture and an engine sensor problem this afternoon. The M-Sport Ford duo’s dramas allowed Oliver Solberg up to sixth, but a final stage clutch problem delayed the Swede and the pair swapped positions, separated by seven-tenths.
Today’s finale contains two laps of the well-known Santa Marina and Riudecanyes tests, the first pass of Santa Marina extra challenging in darkness. Mid-leg service divides the loops, with the second pass of Riudecanyes forming the bonus-points paying Wolf Power Stage. The four tests cover 50.90km.
Leading positions after Saturday
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 2 hr 03 min 45.7 sec
2. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota Yaris +16.4 sec
3. S Ogier / J Ingrassia FRA Toyota Yaris +38.7 sec
4. D Sordo / C Carrera ESP Hyundai i20 +39.9 sec
5. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota Yaris +1 min 12.3 sec
6. G Greensmith / C Patterson GBR Ford Fiesta +3 min 45.2 sec
Credits : Photos and content courtesy of Red Bull Media House GmbH