The Finn was the third leader of another dramatic FIA World Rally Championship day in which the pendulum swung back and forth between the title contenders.
The Toyota Yaris driver headed a resurgent Sébastien Ogier by 4.7sec after the Frenchman staged another remarkable charge up the leaderboard from seventh to strengthen his claim for a sixth consecutive crown.
Latvala’s smiles were contrasted by despair elsewhere in the Toyota team. Ott Tänak, the outsider of the title-chasing trio and rally leader after Friday’s leg, plunged to eighth when a front left puncture cost 1min 45sec and may have dealt a fatal blow to his championship bid.
Both gambled on Michelin’s rarely-used rain tyre this morning, which proved perfect for the wet asphalt roads in the hills near Salou. Dani Sordo briefly replaced Tänak at the top in his Hyundai i20, before Latvala swiftly demoted the Spaniard this afternoon.
“The feeling is good and I’m confident. Tomorrow’s stages should be more like a pure asphalt rally. You cannot cut the corners so much and the roads should be cleaner,” said Latvala, who won one of the day’s six special stages.
Ogier took his chance with wet weather tyres this afternoon and gained three places in the penultimate test as rain and mud slowed his rivals. He ended 3.3sec ahead of Citroën’s Sebastien Loeb, whose pace steadily quickened on his first asphalt drive in the wet for six years.
Elfyn Evans was a further 1.8sec behind in fourth. Although the Welshman had a troublefree day, he could not prevent the French duo demoting him from a podium place.
Championship leader Thierry Neuville was desperate to match Ogier’s charge and protect his points advantage. He climbed from ninth to fifth in his i20, closing the gap to 8.0sec after a feisty afternoon drive which netted two stage wins.
Sordo fared worst in the deteriorating conditions, losing four places in the penultimate stage to end in sixth. Just 16.5sec covering the top six drivers.
Sunday’s finale covers two identical loops of two stages totalling 61.70km. With every point vital in the captivating title fight, the bonus points for the fastest five drivers in the final Santa Marina Power Stage could prove vital ahead of next month’s final round in Australia.
1. J-M Latvala / M Anttila FIN Toyota Yaris 2hr 35min 01.8sec
2. S Ogier / J Ingrassia FRA Ford Fiesta + 4.7sec
3. S Loeb / D Elena FRA Citroën C3 + 8.0sec
4. E Evans / D Barritt GBR Ford Fiesta + 9.8sec
5. T Neuville / N Gilsoul BEL Hyundai i20 + 12.7sec
6. D Sordo / C del Barrio ESP Hyundai i20 + 16.5sec