Rally España, friday: Loeb grabs late lead
Neuville had a troublefree day to finish second
SS1/2: Disaster for Ogier
Defending world champion Sébastien Ogier’s hopes of a seventh straight title looked bleak after a disastrous start to RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España on Friday morning.
The Frenchman was fastest through the opening Gandesa speed test in his Citroën C3 before power steering problems cost 45sec in the following Horta - Bot special stage.
Ogier gave a rueful smile at the finish before confirming he struggled for the entire test. “Straight away. I have to look,” he said, before heading off to try to make repairs ahead of the next La Fatarella - Vilalba stage, the longest of the rally at almost 39km.
Citroën Racing team principal Pierre Budar shed some light on Ogier’s issue. “So far we’re quite sure it’s a hydraulic problem, but we’re not clear where it has come from. Seb and Julien have done some work to get the hydraulic power steering back.
“I think it will be a very long and difficult stage for them - it will be physical and demanding. "Of course, it’s quite a disappointment because they will lose a lot of time in the next one.”
Ogier trails championship leader Ott Tänak by 28 points and, realistically, nothing less than a victory on this mixed surface encounter will keep him in the title battle with just the final round in Australia remaining after this weekend.
Thierry Neuville, the third man in the title fight, was the early leader in his Hyundai i20. He held a 0.4sec advantage over team-mate Dani Sordo, despite a few niggly issues.
“I had a lot of mud on the windscreen so had bad visibility for a lot of the first stage. I’m not so confident with the rear of the car. The traction is good but we’re sliding from the rear too much,” said the Belgian.
Sordo was second in both stages and 1.5sec clear of Kris Meeke, who survived a close call in Gandesa when a bump threw his Toyota Yaris onto two wheels. Team-mate Tänak was fourth, with only 2.7sec covering the leading quartet.
Finns Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen completed the top six.
Grip on the gravel roads varied following the massive thunderstorms earlier in the week. The open parts of the stages had dried but the shaded sections remained slippery and muddy, and there were a myriad of tyre choices as drivers searched for the best option.
Both Jari-Matti Latvala and Elfyn Evans complained of a lack of traction, the Welshman suffering a half-spin in his Fiesta in SS2. Sébastien Loeb was the only driver to opt for hard tyres on all four corners and the i20 driver reported similar problems.
SS3: Sordo heads Hyundai 1-2
Dani Sordo headed Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Thierry Neuville after Friday morning’s opening loop of speed tests at RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España.
But championship leader Ott Tänak was attracting all the attention as competitors returned to Salou for mid-leg service after taking an enormous stride towards his maiden world title.
The Estonian was third in a Toyota Yaris, 7.5sec adrift of Sordo. Crucially, he was more than three-and-a-half minutes clear of principal title challenger Sébastien Ogier, who endured a torrid morning without power steering in his Citroën C3.
Sordo overhauled Neuville in the morning’s final dirt road speed test from La Fatarella to Vilalba despite a rear puncture for the closing 5km of the 38.85km stage - the rally’s longest.
“I was driving really slowly, I tried not to take the tyre off the rim,” explained home hero Sordo, who had 1.0sec in hand over his colleague after second fastest time on all three morning stages.
Victory is essential for Neuville, the third man in the championship fight, and even that might not be enough to deny Tänak the title. “I tried to push very hard. It wasn’t easy on the Tarmac section with the softer tyres but I’m happy with my morning and my tyre choice. There is room for more!” he said.
After losing 45sec in the previous Horta - Bot stage, Ogier battled in vain to make repairs to his stricken car on the liaison section to La Fatarella - Vilalba. He conceded almost three minutes, leaving his hopes of a seventh straight title hanging by the slenderest of threads.
“It’s disappointing to lose like this but I’m glad to be here,” said Ogier. “It’s very easy to have an accident with no power steering as you have a lot of kickback and I now have a big blister on my hand. It was not looking easy before the start and now it is even more complicated. I think we can almost say that it is over.”
Depending on Neuville’s final result, Tänak need only outscore Ogier by two points to lift the crown but he was in no mood to start the celebrations just yet. “It’s only the third stage. I guess we’re competing with Neuville at the moment so we’ll do our best,” he said.
Elfyn Evans was next up in a Ford Fiesta, 10.9sec off the lead, after leaping three places in the final test. The Welshman, Kris Meeke, Sébastien Loeb and Esapekka Lappi were blanketed by just 1.1sec in a tight fight for fourth.
Loeb’s gamble to fit hard tyres to his i20 paid off with fastest time in the final stage.
A frustrated Jari-Matti Latvala struggled with understeer in eighth in his Yaris, ahead of fellow Finn Teemu Suninen and Japanese youngster Takamoto Katsuta.
SS4/5: Double win for Hyundai
Home hero Dani Sordo extended his RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España lead on Friday afternoon as his Hyundai Motorsport team claimed back-to-back stage victories.
The Spaniard was a convincing winner in the short Gandesa speed test. He was fastest by 2.7sec, with the remainder of the top 10 drivers blanketed by just 1.6sec.
It was team-mate Sébastien Loeb’s turn in the following Horta - Bot as the Frenchman scored his first stage victory of the event, leaving the Korean manufacturer holding a clean sweep of the podium places in the overall standings.
Sordo, who tied for second in the stage with Jari-Matti Latvala, stretched his advantage to 4.6sec over Thierry Neuville, with Loeb climbing to third a further 9.5sec adrift. However, Sordo was unhappy with his SS5 performance.
“I didn’t do very well, I was braking a little bit bad. The car was nice but my driving was not so good here,” he said.
Neuville admitted he had little left to offer in terms of speed. “I pushed quite hard. There were a lot of ruts so I tried to be as efficient as I could. I am struggling a little bit still with the balance at the rear, but it was slightly better so I am able to push more,” he said.
Championship leader Ott Tänak slipped 3.0sec behind Loeb to fourth in his Toyota Yaris and was absolutely flat out. “I’m pushing really hard. We’re really on the limit so I can’t do anything more,” he said.
Kris Meeke, driving another Yaris, retained fifth only 1.1sec behind the Estonian, with Elfyn Evans conceding a couple of places and sliding to sixth in his Ford Fiesta.
Esapekka Lappi became the rally’s first major retirement when the Finn parked his Citroën C3 with mechanical issues in Horta - Bot.
Team-mate Sébastien Ogier’s C3 was restored to full health in mid-leg service after this morning’s hydraulic problems that left him without power steering, but the Frenchman languished at the bottom end of the top 30 in the standings.
After SS6: Loeb grabs late lead
Nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb snatched the lead of RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España late in Friday’s opening leg on a day when Ott Tänak took a massive step towards his maiden title.
Loeb, the most successful driver in FIA World Rally Championship history, charged from third to first in the closing gravel road speed test to head a Hyundai i20 1-2-3. He led Thierry Neuville by 1.7sec with Dani Sordo a further 5.9sec adrift.
Championship leader Tänak ended fifth in his Toyota Yaris. His title hopes were boosted when closest rival Sébastien Ogier conceded almost four minutes when a hydraulic pipe came loose on his Citroën C3, leaving the Frenchman with no power steering.
Ogier led initially before hitting trouble and allowing Neuville, the only other driver capable of lifting the crown, into top spot. He was overhauled by Sordo, who led for three of the six tests, before Loeb’s late smash-and-grab to become the day’s fourth leader.
“I pushed really on the limit in the last stage,” said the 45-year-old Frenchman, who was only sixth at the midpoint but ended the day with three stage wins.
“The grip was very good and I tried hard from the start until the last metre. It’s incredible to have three cars at the front. We didn’t believe that when we started and I didn’t believe I would lead.”
Neuville never put a foot wrong, despite struggling with visibility in the late-evening sunshine. The Belgian must win this weekend, but even that may not be enough to deny Tänak.
Sordo headed Neuville by almost five seconds before the closing stage. He was powerless to explain a 20sec deficit to Loeb through the test, and also slipped behind Neuville.
Kris Meeke held fourth despite a close call this morning when a bump threw his Yaris onto two wheels. The Briton was 5.4sec behind Sordo and 8.7sec clear of Tänak, who could secure the championship this weekend.
Jari-Matti Latvala improved throughout the day to climb to sixth in the final stage, demoting Elfyn Evans whose Ford Fiesta ended with a sick engine. Teemu Suninen, Takamoto Katsuta and WRC 2 Pro leader Mads Østberg completed the top 10.
Ogier ended 17th and with blistered hands after wrestling his car through two stages without power steering. Repairs were made during mid-leg service but his hopes of securing a seventh straight world title require a miracle.
It was a disappointing day for Citroën Racing as Ogier’s team-mate, Esapekka Lappi, retired with engine problems.
Teams had an extended service tonight as mechanics raced against the clock to switch the cars from gravel to asphalt set-up for tomorrow’s sealed surface action. Competitors face two loops of three tests before a closing blast along Salou seafront. The seven stages total 121.72km.
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