(Reuters) – Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville extended his lead in the Rally of Spain on Saturday with the world championship title battle between Toyota team mates Elfyn Evans and Sebastien Ogier looking set to go down to next month’s final round in Italy.
Belgian Neuville was fastest through all but one of the day’s seven asphalt stages to forge 16.4 seconds clear of Evans after leading by a mere 0.7 overnight.
“It wasn’t easy; we had some fog early on and the roads were very dirty, so I relied a lot on information from the road note crew,” said the Hyundai driver.
“We made an important set-up change yesterday that allowed us to take more out of the car, but there are still things we could have done to go even quicker.”
Ogier, who can clinch the title in Spain only by scoring six points more than Evans, prevented a clean sweep by Neuville on the fast roads around the resort of Salou, to the south of Barcelona.
Evans is the only driver who can deny Ogier an eighth championship in nine years. The Welshman ended Saturday a comfortable 22.3 seconds clear of the Frenchman.
“It’s not the day we wanted,” said Evans. “I didn’t feel that comfortable this morning but it was even a bit worse this afternoon.
“We did improve some areas where we were struggling, but I lost the general balance of the car as a result.”
Hyundai’s Spaniard Dani Sordo was fourth, 1.2 seconds away from the last podium place, with Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera fifth.
Neuville’s stage wins meant Hyundai have exceeded 100 in a single season for the first time but Toyota are leading the manufacturers’ championship by 61 points and can secure that title on Sunday.
Sunday’s final leg features four stages including the Power Stage with a bonus five points for the winner.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)