Meeke on target for another home podium

Tense tussle over runner-up spoils between Britain’s Kris Meeke and Mikko Hirvonen in his WRC swansongWorld Champion Sébastien Ogier on course for his eighth victory of 2014 WRC campaignMistake ends Volkswagen team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala’s valiant bid for glory​​Sébastien Ogier heads into the final day of Wales Rally GB with a commanding lead at the front of the field following drama for Volkswagen Motorsport team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, but behind the Frenchman, things are heating up as Mikko Hirvonen and Kris Meeke duel energetically over runner-up honours.​​The second full day of Britain’s concluding round of the 2014 FIA World Rally Championship had barely got underway when Latvala – on a charge as he endeavoured to reel in overnight leader Ogier and having already reduced the deficit from 6.6 seconds to 4.9 seconds – hit trouble.​​Just under seven kilometres into SS9 (Clocaenog East 1), the Finn overshot under braking in the slippery conditions and slid backwards into a ditch as his engine stalled. With assistance from spectators, it took more than three minutes for Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila to get the Polo R WRC back on the road, and they were forced to complete the remainder of the morning loop with a broken rear spoiler and non-functioning rear brakes.​​Confessing that ‘I really wanted to fight for victory so I’d decided this morning that I was going to go for it – and I did’, the error dropped the two-time Wales Rally GB winner down to tenth place and compromised his run through the following four stages. With the pressure removed, Ogier carefully paced himself in the tricky conditions to arrive back at midday service 70 seconds clear of his closest pursuer.​​That role was occupied for most of the morning by Hirvonen’s M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta RS WRC, but having been hunted down by Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo Mads Østberg and Meeke, the Finn conceded the place to his Norwegian rival on SS13. As their tussle intensified, the evenly-matched trio returned to the Deeside Service Park at midday blanketed by just 1.4 seconds.​​Making the most of his early road position, the pace-setter all morning was Andreas Mikkelsen in the third Volkswagen. Having gone off the road on the very first stage of the rally on Friday, the young Norwegian restarted under Rally 2 regulations today – albeit more than half-an-hour adrift of the lead and down in 55th position.​​Demonstrating what might have been, he sped to four consecutive fastest times – only coming up short on the popular, family-friendly Chirk Castle spectator stage, which was won by Henning Solberg.​​With the surface remaining slippery in the afternoon and crews having to contend initially with low sun glare and later full darkness, Ogier continued to take things comparatively easy – and with no need to take risks, didn’t go better than fourth-fastest on any of the day’s stages. Pushing no harder than necessary, the world champion now holds an advantage of just under a minute at the front of the field.​​“It’s been a long day, and my approach to the rally obviously changed this morning when Jari-Matti went off,” the Frenchman confessed. “We were in a comfortable lead after that, and the key became to control it. It was imperative to remain focused, which is never easy in conditions like these.​​“I wasn’t pushing and was just trying to keep everything neat and tidy. There were a lot of stages today and I had to take care not to make any mistakes. Tomorrow, we need to finish the job. Another victory would be the ideal way to sign off the season.”​​No sooner had he snatched the runner-up spot from Hirvonen, than Østberg picked up a ten-second penalty for late arrival at a time control – and Meeke took full advantage through Clocaenog East 2 by setting the outright pace to vault both of his immediate rivals and move into second.​​Not to be outdone, Hirvonen’s response was to set the quickest time on the following stage – Clocaenog Main 2 – to reclaim the spot from Meeke, with Hyundai Shell World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville outpacing Østberg to narrow the gap to fourth.​​As darkness fell, Hirvonen eked out a further 1.2 seconds over Meeke on Aberhirnant 2, the pair continuing to trade tenths of a second in their captivating see-saw duel.​There were dramas, however, for both Østberg and Neuville, with the former losing ten seconds to a delaminated rear tyre five kilometres from the stage end and the latter knocking his light pods out of alignment after hitting a chicane in his Hyundai i20 WRC. The Belgian nonetheless continued to close the gap, heading into Dyfnant 2 a mere 1.9 seconds adrift.​​Meeke went faster than Hirvonen through the last stage of the leg, but not by enough to move back ahead overall, meaning the Finn will enter the final day of his illustrious WRC career with 3.4 seconds in-hand in the scrap for the runner-up spoils as he enjoys arguably his best rally of the year.​​“Whatever happens tomorrow, it’s been great to finish my WRC career with such an exciting battle!” enthused Hirvonen. “Kris was a bit faster this morning, but we pulled it back in the afternoon – it’s been absolutely fantastic and I’ve enjoyed every moment of this rally.​​“The conditions are never easy on Wales Rally GB because it’s invariably pretty slippery, but when you are really ‘on it’ and in a good rhythm, it’s such a great feeling. There can be only one strategy for tomorrow – flat-out until the very final second of the very final stage!”​​“It was really enjoyable,” echoed Meeke. “At the beginning of the rally, we anticipated a battle for fourth because the Volkswagens quite frankly are in a different league. When Mikkelsen went, that became a battle for third and now Latvala has gone too, it’s a battle for second. We lost a few little seconds here and there today, but overall I’m happy and it’s great to be in the fight.​​“Mikko has been very strong. He told everyone last week that he felt it was time to slow down – but he certainly isn’t slowing down this weekend! It would be nice to finish on the podium on my home event, of course, but for me, the top priority tomorrow is securing Citroën’s position in the manufacturers’ championship, and I don’t want to do anything stupid to jeopardise that.”​​A little further back, Østberg, Neuville and M-Sport World Rally Team’s Elfyn Evans are covered by barely ten seconds, after the Welshman took a chunk of time out of both the Citroën and Hyundai on the after-dark blast through Dyfnant. Ott Tänak sits a solid seventh in his Fiesta RS WRC, with the recovering Latvala – who claimed his only fastest stage time of the day on Dyfnant 2 – eighth.​Solberg and Martin Prokop complete the top ten. Both picked up punctures during the course of the afternoon loop, but their pace was sufficient to stave off the challenge of Hyundai Motorsport N’s Hayden Paddon and ex-Formula 1 star Robert Kubica in his RK M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta RS WRC. Mikkelsen’s morning momentum was somewhat halted later on by intercom issues – although they did not prevent him from adding another stage win to his tally on Clocaenog Main 2.​​Jari Ketomaa remains comfortably clear of the rest of the WRC 2 field following a commanding performance in his Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5, with Lorenzo Bertelli second in a similar car and Matthew Wilson up to third in a Fiesta RRC. Tom Cave is less than two seconds behind, fourth-in-class and 16th overall in his Fiesta R5, with Osian Pryce’s Fiesta R5 three spots further back in 19th.​​“We seem to have settled back in pretty well,” mused Wilson. “Even if we did lose some time on the last stage, today was generally good – and I really enjoyed the runs through Clocaenog. We’re within striking distance of second place in WRC 2 and although there aren’t that many kilometres left tomorrow, anything is possible and we’ll continue to give it our all.”​​Following an evening service stop in Deeside, the high-octane action will resume on Sunday morning with SS18, the first run through the all-new Brenig stage, at 08.33. Highlights include two blasts through the family-friendly spectator stage at Kinmel Park, with Brenig doubling up as the points-scoring Power Stage at midday.​

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