Thierry Neuville thrived in Rally Turkey’s gruelling conditions on Saturday to build a substantial lead during an enthralling and topsy-turvy leg.
He won three of the six punishing speed tests to close the penultimate day of this fifth round of the 2020 FIA World Rally Championship with a 33.2s advantage in his Hyundai i20.
Rocky mountain roads and high temperatures took a heavy toll on championship leader Sébastien Ogier, world champion Ott Tänak and title challenger Elfyn Evans who all suffered in the toughest conditions the WRC season has to offer.
Eventually Friday leader Sébastien Loeb, driving another i20, and fellow Frenchman Ogier ended tied on time, with Loeb claiming second on a tie-break.
Ogier and Neuville swapped seconds during the three morning tests, the former holding a slender 1.6sec lead at the mid-leg service in his Toyota Yaris.
Neuville was unhappy with his car’s balance, but set-up changes improved his confidence. Two afternoon stage wins, to add to a morning success, promoted him into the lead as Ogier fell to fourth with a puncture and a suspected hydraulic problem.
“The afternoon was much better than the morning,” said Neuville. “We worked on the set-up and I was happier with the car in the rough sections. But nothing is done. Tomorrow has the roughest stage of the rally and we need to avoid punctures and damage on the car, but we still need to drive fast.”
Ogier recovered to second and was joined by Loeb, who won the final stage to leap from fourth after losing time this morning with a poor tyre choice.
“We had an electronic issue I believe, I don’t know exactly what,” said Ogier. “The consequence was that I was losing the shifting and also I was losing the hydraulic pressure, so only going in front-wheel-drive. It’s a little disappointing but happy to be here tonight.”
Evans was fourth in his Yaris after holding second in the early afternoon. Tyre troubles cost the Welshman almost 40sec and he ended 27.6s adrift of the duelling Sébastiens.
Tänak’s hopes of defending his title suffered a massive hit when a steering problem caused his i20 to spear off the road in the day’s opening test and he retired.
Kalle Rovanperä was fifth in another Yaris, 18.0s behind Evans after suffering a front right puncture, while Teemu Suninen completed the top six in a Ford Fiesta.
Sunday’s finale promises a sting in the tail with the longest closing day on a WRC round for more than four years. Two passes through the rally’s longest and toughest stage allied with a double run through a short test add up to 88.86km. The closing Marmaris Wolf Power Stage offers bonus points to the fastest five drivers.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / N Gilsoul BEL Hyundai i20 1hr 36min 38.6s
2. S Loeb / D Elena FRA Hyundai i20 +33.2s
3. S Ogier / J Ingrassia FRA Toyota Yaris +33.2s
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota Yaris +1min 00.8s
5. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota Yaris +1min 18.8s
6. T Suninen / J Lehtinen FIN Ford Fiesta +1min 35.0s