FINLAND’S JARI-MATTI LATVALA HELD A SLENDER LEAD AT NESTE RALLY FINLAND AT THE MIDPOINT OF FRIDAY’S OPENING LEG AFTER A THRILLING DUEL WITH TOYOTA GAZOO RACING TEAM-MATE ESAPEKKA LAPPI.
Latvala headed his colleague by 5.3sec after the opening loop of three dirt road speed tests west of Jyväskylä. Lappi won the second pass of all three to trim the deficit to 1.6sec as competitors headed to mid-leg service.
“It’s been a great start but the fight is very tight with Esapekka, he’s pushing hard,” said Latvala. “Jukojärvi (SS7) was the best stage of this loop. I had a good rhythm and this afternoon I want to try to keep that rhythm.”
Lappi is making only his fourth World Rally Car start and has won four stages in a row. “I could feel the grip was changing a lot but that’s how it is in rally. After my caution on the first stage it’s been a good step up this morning,” said the Yaris driver.
A dry morning gave way to heavy rain in Jukojärvi but it didn’t stop Mads Østberg relegating Craig Breen and Teemu Suninen to climb to third in his Ford Fiesta. The Norwegian was third in all three stages to trail Lappi by 12.2sec.
It was a tight battle for the final podium place with Breen 0.4sec behind and Teemu Suninen another tenth adrift. Breen continued to feel uncomfortable with the handling of his Citroën C3, struggling more as the loop progressed.
Juho Hänninen made it three Yaris cars in the top six, the Finn 5.4sec behind fellow countryman Suninen and half a second clear of a frustrated Kris Meeke. “I can’t place the car like I want to. I just can’t do the right thing,” said the C3 pilot.
Elfyn Evans continued to fight an understeering Fiesta in eighth, with Hyundai i20 duo Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo completing the leaderboard. Neuville was 34.1sec off the lead but focused on capitalising on the demise of title rival Sébastien Ogier, who crashed earlier.
“I tried to push hard but there is a lot of gravel on the road and the rear is sliding,” said the Belgian, who was opening the stages. “I used every inch of the road but couldn’t do more. Our main contender, Ogier, is out for today and we have to be in the top five at the end of the weekend to take good points,” he said.
Ott Tänak is 11th after his earlier puncture, the Estonian overshooting a junction after being distracted by a faulty wiper jammed across his Fiesta’s windscreen.