Sebastien Ogier clings on at the top of the Rally Italia Sardegna leaderboard after Saturday afternoon’s loop of three stages, despite the relentless pursuit of World Rally Championship frontrunner Thierry Neuville. Esapekka Lappi was promoted to the final provisional podium placing when Jari-Matti Latvala stopped on the road section after the final stage with alternator issues due to hitting a rock as this enthralling battle of teammates reached its nail-biting conclusion.
Neuville — who carried an advantage of 19 points into this rally — demonstrated blistering pace throughout the day, seemingly at one with the much rougher conditions that left others battling to find a good rhythm, Ogier among them. This rally has witnessed a range of conditions so far, but more conventional warm and sunny Sardinian conditions today have hardened the ruts created after Friday’s heavy rain.
Heading into the afternoon, Neuville had hauled himself up to within 4.9 seconds of Ogier, progressively piling on the pressure with some impressive stage times early in the day. Midday service necessitated a fuel cell change after a fuel pressure problem in the liaison section back to Alghero, his team returning him to the road in the designated 30 minutes and in time for the short Citta’ di Ittiri — Coros speed test. Aided by Ogier stalling at the start line, he set about taking another big chunk out of the gap, slashing it to 2.9s at the end of the curtain raiser to this afternoon’s 46 miles.
The next three stages came thick and fast and as the mercury continued to rise, the fight for each of the podium places was also heating up. Just as Neuville set his sights on overhauling his championship adversary, a debeaded tire threatened to derail his ambitions. He continued unabated but the gap widened again to 06.8s after the opening stage of the afternoon. Despite having no spare tire for the final two stages, he gave no quarter and whittled the margin back down to 3.9s, setting himself up for a titanic battle with Ogier on Sunday.
The aggressive pace of the day was evident in the big battles up and down the top 10 placings, none more so than the one between Latvala and his teammate Lappi. They were neck and neck throughout the afternoon, trading seconds from stage to stage.
Hayden Paddon was engaged in his own thrilling duel with Mads Ostberg, and heads into the final day fourth overall with a 2.1s advantage. Craig Breen is one minute adrift of teammate Ostberg.
In the FIA WRC 2 Championship, Jan Kopecky takes the lead with three minutes in hand to nearest class rival Nicolas Ciamin in 10th position. The battle in the FIA WRC 3 Championship continues, with Jean-Baptiste Franceschi regaining the advantage over Taisko Lario, the pair separated by over a minute.
Ott Tanak ended the penultimate day in ninth place, notwithstanding a late puncture necessitating a front right tire change. Andreas Mikkelsen’s final stage also came to a premature conclusion.
That’s Saturday’s seven stages done and dusted. The deciding day of the 2018 Rally Italia Sardegna is the shortest of the event and takes in two loops of two stages, culminating in the all-important points-paying Power Stage.