Sebastien Ogier claimed five straight stages wins on Friday evening to hold a commanding lead at the end of the second day of Rally Finland.
The Volkswagen ace has almost 40 seconds in hand over the embattled M-Sport Fords of Thierry Neuville and Mads Ostberg. Morning pacesetter Neuville holds a slender of advantages over teammate Ostberg, after they took turns to drop time to the leader.
Ogier had ended the morning leg less than a second behind Ostberg, but the Frenchman went 4.6sec faster on SS11 to take lead of the rally for the first time. Ostberg stayed within touching distance until the penultimate stage, just under 10sec behind the Frenchman at the start of SS14.
But the championship leader's advantage more than tripled as the Norwegian suffered a broken front-left rim, and dropped 25.8sec. That allowed his teammate Neuville back into second, the Belgian enjoying a significantly more competitive second leg of Friday's stages. He suffered a front-left puncture on SS13, and had to run with a rear-left puncture on the superspecial, but held on to his position as the lead Ford by 0.8sec.
A troublesome run of stages for Mikko Hirvonen dropped him further behind the fight for the podium places, despite the problems for the M-Sport pair. The Finn described his lucky escape on SS12 – where he almost rolled taking a corner in fifth gear – as "a miracle." He holds a 31.8sec advantage over Citroen teammate Meeke, who bounced back from losing time behind Evgeny Novikov to consolidate fifth place – aided by Andreas Mikkelsen retiring when his Polo shed its left-rear wheel.
Meeke's rally could receive an additional boost, however. Stewards are investigating the incident with Novikov, in which the Northern Irishman lost around 30sec, and could reinstate that time if they see fit. This would put Meeke within two seconds behind Hirvonen, setting up a potentially mighty battle on the final day.
Even a puncture just before SS12 could not deter Jari Ketomaa from blitzing the WRC2 field, the Fiesta R5 driver moving 1m10.2s clear of Robert Kubica. The Pole, though, is almost two minutes clear of third-placed Hayden Paddon, who had myriad problems closing out his day.