Jari-Matti Latvala delighted locals by leading Rally Finland after an enthralling leg in which the lead changed hands three times.
He heads Volkswagen Polo R team-mate Sébastien Ogier by 2.6sec after almost 160km of flat-out action south-west of Jyväskylä. Kris Meeke completed the top three, the Ulsterman 21.4sec further back in Citroën’s DS 3.
Almost half the rally’s competitive distance was crammed into nine gravel speed tests. With no opportunity for service, drivers had to avoid problems as well as adapt to the rollercoaster jumps which make this the fastest round in the World Rally Championship.
Ogier lost his overnight lead to Meeke in the opening stage but regained the advantage in the next test to end the morning 5.3sec clear. Latvala was hot on his heels before moving ahead by literally flying through the rollercoaster Ouninpohja, where cars leap into the air more than 70 times, to claim his 400th WRC stage win.
“I have never driven that stage so fast. I almost made myself scared in a couple of places because I had so much air over the jumps. It was the best stage of an afternoon that went extremely well,” said Latvala.
Kiwi star Hayden Paddon was sitting fifth when his Hyundai i20 left the road on the first of the afternoon stages.
“Obviously, I’m really disappointed that we have had to retire from the rally,” said Paddon.
“Unfortunately, just one kilometre before the end of the first afternoon stage, we lost the car. Thankfully, John (Kennard) and I were OK but the car was too badly damaged and the team has been unable to fix it. We’ve therefore been forced to retire from the event.
“We’ve built up a lot of momentum in these recent rallies so I’m determined to put this behind us quickly and move onto the next one. In the meantime, we’ll support the team for the rest of this weekend.”
The other major retirements were Andreas Mikkelsen, rolled heavily in SS5 and the damage to his Polo R was too great for him to restart tomorrow, and Robert Kubica who had alternator problems in his Fiesta.
Road opener Ogier initially struggled for grip in the forests following torrential rain yesterday. Then the unusual lines taken by local competitors, who followed the WRC through the morning stages, left plenty of loose gravel to disadvantage him when they were repeated.
Meeke’s hopes were hampered by a transmission issue which left his car ‘wandering all over the road’. But the Ulsterman remained close to the Volkswagen duo until a 10sec penalty for checking in late at the penultimate stage dropped him back.
He led Citroën colleague Mads Østberg by 10.1sec, the Norwegian enjoying a troublefree day after a slow start, and the quartet were already well clear.
Thierry Neuville was fifth in a Hyundai i20. The Belgian struggled for confidence after yesterday’s shakedown crash with pace notes that were too slow, but climbed the order as drivers around him hit problems.
A solid day for Australia’s Scott Peddder who completed the leg in sixth place in the WRC2 category and 16th overall.
“It does feel really good to get to the end of a day like we had today in Finland and be in such a positive position,” said Pedder.
“We end the day in a great position and with a decent time gap in front and behind us. The aim now is to manage the pace because I don’t think we can catch the guys ahead. If anyone has a problem though we’ll be there to capitalise!
“We were probably 98% flat out today. I was probably a little cautious with my driving, and with my pace notes over the jumps. Some we’d arrive at too slowly, others too fast and struggle to pull the car up before the next corner. All that comes with experience, but that’s where we lost time today.”
Saturday’s action comprises two identical loops of four stages west of Jyväskylä covering 131.04km.
LEADERBOARD: Leg 1 – Rally Finland
|1||Jari-Matti Latvala||Volkswagen Motorsport||Volkswagen||1h16m19.2s|
|2||Sebastien Ogier||Volkswagen Motorsport||Volkswagen||2.6s|
|3||Kris Meeke||Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT||Citroen||24.0s|
|4||Mads Ostberg||Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT||Citroen||34.1s|
|5||Thierry Neuville||Hyundai Motorsport||Hyundai||1m49.6s|
|6||Daniel Sordo||Hyundai Motorsport||Hyundai||1m52.3s|
|8||Martin Prokop||Jipocar Czech National Team||Ford||2m46.6s|
|9||Esapekka Lappi||Skoda Motorsport||Skoda||3m18.5s|
|10||Ott Tanak||M-Sport World Rally Team||Ford||3m30.2s|
VIDEO: Opening Stages
VIDEO: Lunchtime Stages