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Delight and Despair in Argentina: Neuville Denies Evans Victory in WRC Classic

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Thierry Neuville shattered Elfyn Evans’s dreams of bagging a maiden WRC victory by hunting down the Welshmen on the very last stage of Rally Argentina 2017. A minuscule 0.7 secs was all that split the pair at the end of one of the most nail-biting rallies in recent memory. M-Sport’s Evans, who finished third here back in 2015, took advantage of the car-crunching carnage ahead of him to lead for almost the entirety of the three-day event, only to lose grip of top spot on the last few kilometres of the competitive distance. The Ford Fiesta fared better than its counterparts at Citroën, Hyundai and Toyota in the brutally rough gravel roads, with two more M-Sport cars rounding out the top four. Ott Tänak earned a well-deserved spot on the podium by holding on for third, with teammate a championship leader Sébastien Ogier just missing out on the bubbly down in fourth.

Eighteen special stages covering a total distance of 357.59 kilometres awaited the WRC’s finest for the 2017 instalment of South America’s sole top tier rally.  All but unchanged from last year’s outing, the only pace note tweaks come on Saturday’s sprint from Tanti to Villa Bustos which is run in the opposite direction for 2017.  Although a pure gravel rally, a potential pitfall in Argentina lies in the sharp contrast between the softer, sandier roads over the first two days of competition and the narrow, rock-strewn tracks encountered on Sunday, deep in the Traslasierra Mountains. Despite the extreme altitude, hundreds of ardent fans make the annual pilgrimage to one of the most awe-inspiring vantage points anywhere on the WRC calendar; the breath-taking El Condor peak.

A high attrition rate is par for the course at Rally Argentina. Even so, few would have foreseen such carnage on Friday as the casualty list lengthened with each passing stage. The mayhem started on the very first stage when Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon rolled his i20. With all four wheels back on terra firma, the Kiwi limped to the finish and mounted a commendable recovery to seventh in the afternoon following extensive repairs at midday service. Less fortunate was his teammate Dani Sordo, who tumbled down the leaderboard from a promising third position after smashing his i20’s steering arm on a boulder.

Neither of the Toyota Yaris were spared the wrath of Argentina’s abrasive tracks. Jari-Matti Latvala had held second for a time but surrendered one place when his engine overheated before a puncture on the penultimate left him well off the pace in sixth. Compatriot Juhu Hänninen could only manage ninth, severely hamstrung by an engine way down on power.

Amongst the other big guns to fall by the wayside were Citroën pair Craig Breen and Kris Meeke. Neither of the C3s survived the gravel onslaught intact, with Breen’s car crippled by a jammed gearbox and Meeke crashing out from second place in spectacular fashion after a particularly large bump sent him lurching off the road.

Of the survivors, it was those lower down in the running order who shone on Friday. None more so than Elfyn Evans, who enjoyed surely his best day in a WRC car to date. Utterly dominant, the Welshman grabbed sixth stage wins to easily overhaul early leader Ogier and build an imposing 55.7sec advantage over the rest of the field. An equally unfamiliar face at the top of the standings occupied second. A two-round absence for privateer Mads Østberg afforded the former Citroën man an equally beneficial spot near the bottom of the running order, an advantage the Norwegian exploited to the full by flying through the cleaner roads. He held off Neuville by 5.0ses, aided to a great extent by a puncture and broken damper aboard the Belgian’s i20 WRC. First man out Sébastien Ogier put in a performance as gritty as the roads he was sweeping to end the day fourth, that despite momentarily ditching his Fiesta and later bending its steering arm on a rock.

As Saturday dawned, the question on everybody’s lips was whether frontrunner Evans could keep his nerve in such uncharted territory. The early signs seemed to dispel any inkling that the Welshman would succumb to the pressure. Another victory on stage 10, his seventh fastest time of the event, extended the gap to Neuville past the minute mark. It would not grow any larger, however, as a series of small errors and unfortunate reverses saw the Briton gradually lose his grip on the rally.

The first chinks in the M-Sport star’s previously ironclad armour materialised on the very next test, as the Welshman picked up a slow puncture. A second flat followed shortly after, when a pace-note mix-up sent him hurtling into a roadside bank. Still 44 seconds up, the accumulative effect of minor gremlins, including a damaged rear diffuser that disrupted the car’s handling, began to take a serious toll. The mounting pressure finally told when, on Saturday’s final stage, Evans overcooked a corner and sent his M-Sport Fiesta spinning off the road.  While not a terminal error, the culmination of this catalogue of slip-ups saw Neuville close to within 12 secs of the leader, a mere tenth of the gap that stood at the start of the day.

That’s not to say the Belgian sailed through Saturday’s speed tests completely untroubled, as he was forced to concede the opening stage to Evans after being blinded by the rising morning sun. A change in setup at midday service briefly disrupted his flow but a brace of victories on the last two stages brought him right on to the Brit’s coattails.

Heavy suspension damage on the final stage spelled the end of Østberg, who had already found himself slipping down the order long before he came to blows with a particularly large rock. The Norwegian’s place was usurped by Ott Tänak, who extended his cushion over world champion Sébastien Ogier when the latter almost planted his similar Ford Fiesta into the scenery after spinning on a wet section.

Well behind the lead pack, struggling Toyota duo Latvala and Hänninen were split by Hayden Paddon’s Hyundai i20. Dani Sordo at least managed to drag his newly repaired i20 into a point-scoring position, which was more than could be said for the hapless Meeke. The Rally Mexico winner sped to two fastest times before promptly rolling out for the second day in succession.

With Evans’ advantage slashed, the stage was set for a grandstand finish on Sunday’s rock-strewn roads. Even so, no one could have predicted just how close to the wire the fight for victory would go. Just three stages stood between the M-Sport man and a maiden WRC trophy. However, these speed tests included two runs through the stunningly scenic but notoriously treacherous El Condor plus a taxing 22km slog through Mina Clavero.

Increasingly desperate, long-time leader Evans through caution to the wind on Sunday’s first two tests. The times were good but bettered by Neuville’s rapidly closing i20. Some breath-taking driving from the Belgian chipped another 11 secs off Evans’ cushion to leave the pair virtually deadlocked with just the event closing power stage to go. With the entire weekend of rallying boiling down to a one-stage shoot out, nerves were understandably jangling in both camps. First on the road, Neuville stopped the clock at 13:00.1, 2.7secs up on Ott Tänak ’s benchmark. How would Evans respond? With tyres buckling under the strain of a daylong attack, M-Sport feared the rubbers might let their man down at the death. They held firm.

Nevertheless, Evans’ stage time of 13:01.4, 1.3secs shy of Neuville’s target, finally saw him relinquish top spot after two and a half days of rallying. A bitter blow, in what worked out as the third slimmest margin of victory in the WRC’s 45-year history; 0.7secs in Neuville’s favour.

Ott Tänak  was elated with his low-key but consistent performance in Argentina. Two stage wins and a collection of top three times earned him a well-deserved third place and denied Sébastien Ogier a spot on the podium for the first time this season. Despite this minor setback, poor showings by his closest competitors sees the Frenchman extend his lead in the championship standings to 16 points after five of 13 rounds.

Ogier’s former sparring partner at Volkswagen, Jari matti-Latvala, had to settle for an underwhelming fifth position, just ahead of 2016 Rally Argentina winner Hayden Paddon. The New Zealander’s title defence never got off the ground, with final day power steering issues compounding the misery of his costly crash on Friday. Juho Hänninen, Dani Sordo, Mads Østberg completed the leaderboard.

Behind Ogier, the field is bunching up in the WRC driver’s standings. Two wins on the bounce for Neuville sees him elevated to third, two points adrift of Latvala. Tänak ’s third place, plus three bonus points on the power stage, promotes him to fourth, whilst Evans’ valiant effort in South America propels him up the order to sixth, nine points behind Dani Sordo.

After its brief sojourn in Latin America, the WRC returns to Europe as Portugal hosts round six of the championship from the 18 – 21 May.

Final Results: Round 5 – Rally Argentina 

POS DRIVER CO-DRIVER TEAM POINTS TIME DIFF PREV DIFF 1ST
1. BELT. NEUVILLE BELN. GILSOUL HYU 25+5 3:38:10.6
2. GBRE. EVANS GBRD. BARRITT M-SP 18+4 3:38:11.3 +0.7 +0.7
3. ESTO. TANAK ESTM. JARVEOJA M-SP 15+3 3:38:40.5 +29.2 +29.9
4. FRAS. OGIER FRAJ. INGRASSIA M-SP 12+2 3:39:35.3 +54.8 +1:24.7
5. FINJ. LATVALA FINM. ANTTILA TOY 10+1 3:39:58.7 +23.4 +1:48.1
6. NZLH. PADDON NZLJ. KENNARD HYU 8 3:45:53.3 +5:54.6 +7:42.7
7. FINJ. HANNINEN FINK. LINDSTROM TOY 6 3:49:27.5 +3:34.2 +11:16.9
8. ESPD. SORDO ESPM. MARTI HYU 4 3:52:54.7 +3:27.2 +14:44.1
9. NORM. OSTBERG NORO. FLOENE  PVT 2 3:53:21.9 +27.2 +15:11.3

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