Saturday on Rally Finland ended with Toyota driver Ott Tänak in front, having calmly held the lead from the third stage of the day. However, behind him, there was plenty of drama.
Tänak benefitted from running on cleaner roads compared to yesterday but was more focussed on managing his gap this afternoon than extending it. “It was really rough, and we just concentrated on avoiding damage to the wheels,” he said. “No risks, no worries. We started the day with a big push, but now we have some breathing space: it’s OK.”
Instead, the man on the move was Citroen’s Esapekka Lappi, who won two stages this afternoon to climb up to second, 16.4 seconds behind Tänak overnight. “I’ve been driving some clean stages and avoiding the rocks,” said the 28-year-old Finn. “The afternoon was even more positive than the morning, so I’d say it was a really good day.”
Toyota driver Jari-Matti Latvala, who had a narrow escape after damaging his car in the morning, was on slightly more muted form in the afternoon. “Maybe I took it a bit too easy,” said Latvala. “After what happened earlier, we were a bit afraid of getting into trouble. You need to think of the bigger picture.”
Latvala, 12.4 seconds behind Lappi has been told by his team just to get to the finish tomorrow and score manufacturers’ points, so the accent for him will remain on avoiding big risks.
The thick of the fight
While there were some clearly established gaps between the top three, positions four to six were covered by only 10 seconds, in a continuation of the titanic scrap between Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen, Citroen’s Sebastien Ogier, and the other Hyundai driven by newcomer Craig Breen. Mikkelsen underlined his supremacy in their fight by claiming the final stage win of the day and fourth overall, but it didn’t always go his way.
Ogier had made it a Citroen one-two on the SS16 time sheets by going second-fastest behind Lappi, getting past both Mikkelsen and Breen for fourth overall in the process. On the following stage, Mikkelsen demoted him to fifth, but Ogier remained ahead of Breen – who said he felt more comfortable on the faster and wider sections rather than the narrow parts of the road. Breen had lowered the ride height of his Hyundai for the afternoon but felt he’d gone too far in that direction and is sixth overnight.
At least he felt physically fine, unlike Ogier, who had been suffering from a stomach illness all day. “Honestly, I’ve struggled a lot today; I feel dead” said the Frenchman at the Paviljonki service park. “I’m looking forward to getting to my bed! With my energy levels being so low I made some mistakes. Hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.”
The fight for the title
For Thierry Neuville – who is fighting for the championship with Tänak and Ogier – it was a crucial day. He lost time on SS18, Kakaristo, with a bent arm on the right-rear suspension of his Hyundai, preventing it from driving straight. But he managed to sort the problem before the final stage of the day, Leustu – making its first appearance on Rally Finland since 2014 – to conclude Saturday in eighth overall. “We fixed the problem but generally we’re disappointed with today; there wasn’t much we could do because of road cleaning,” said the Belgian. “Now we just have to stay behind and see what happens.” As his team mate Breen is 20 seconds in front of him and not in the fight for the title this year, don’t be surprised if one of the things that happens is a position swap. With the three title contenders covered by just seven points at the top of table, every extra point counts.
The M-Sport factory Fords of Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith remained eighth and ninth on Saturday evening, although the gap between them grew to more than two minutes. Suninen, who finished second on the previous round in Sardinia, had been targeting a podium on his home event, so was understandably disappointed.
WRC2 and Juniors
Local hero Kalle Rovanpera remained in the lead of WRC2 Pro with 10thoverall, having had a trouble-free run throughout Saturday. “It’s been a really enjoyable day, with nice stages that are a lot of fun to drive,” said the Skoda driver. The long-time WRC2 leader on the rally though, Pierre-Louis Loubet, was reported stopped on the final stage of the day in another Skoda.
Tom Kristensson hung onto the lead of the Junior WRC classification, but Dennis Radström was still within 25 seconds of him by the end of the day. Tomorrow, Neste Rally Finland will be decided over four final stages (including the Ruuhimäki Power Stage) totalling 45.74 kilometres before the podium at 16:00.
Photo: Toni Ollikainen/AKK