Britain’s Kris Meeke closed on a second world rally victory of the season in Spain on Saturday night.
He led RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España by 13.0sec from Sébastien Ogier, whose bid for a fifth consecutive world title looked stronger than ever after main rival Thierry Neuville hit trouble.
The only win of Meeke in a troubled year was in Mexico in March
But he caught his rivals asleep when the action switched to smooth asphalt after a dusty day on dirt yesterday.
He won the opening speed test to vault from third to first. He controlled his advantage through the remaining six special stages near Salou as a quartet of startled rivals fought furiously for the remaining podium places.
“This morning we were able to catch everyone on the hop. This afternoon was all about not doing anything stupid,” said the Citroën C3 driver.
“I knew that coming off the gravel yesterday we had to catch them early because it’s so close and hard to make a difference on asphalt.”
Ogier, Neuville, Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo traded places on every stage in a thrilling battle for second, which left the foursome covered by a single second at one point.
Handling issued blighted Ogier’s Ford Fiesta in the morning. Constant tinkering with the set-up paid dividends and a strong afternoon contained three stage wins and gave him a 1.5sec advantage over team-mate Tänak.
The Estonian also overcame handling troubles and had to replace his damaged gearbox with a gravel-specification version. He swiped a concrete block on the inside of a tight bend in the penultimate stage but escaped serious damage.
Neuville’s Hyundai i20 understeered badly this morning
But worse followed when its hydraulic system failed and he stopped to make repairs on a liaison section.
The engine refused to fire up and in his haste to reach the next test on time, Neuville spun and damaged the rear. He was three minutes late, incurring a 30-second penalty and plunging to eighth.
Team-mates Sordo and overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen hit the same block as Tänak. Sordo retired with broken steering while the impact ripped a wheel from Mikkelsen’s car. The Norwegian, who had led overnight, was unable to match his gravel pace on asphalt and had slipped to sixth.
Juho Hänninen won two stages in a Toyota Yaris to climb from eighth to fourth. He was pursued by Neuville, who recovered to fifth but looks set to yield more points to Ogier in their championship duel.
Six more stages covering 74.26km lie in wait in Sunday’s finale, which is divided into two identical loops of three. The final Santa Marina test forms the live TV Power Stage with bonus points for the fastest five crews.
— Citroën Racing (@CitroenRacing) October 7, 2017