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WRC Rally Poland: Neuville claims hard-fought third win of season

Thierry Neuville wins WRC Poland 2017

Thierry Neuville reduced Sebastien Ogier's World Rally Championship lead to 11 points by winning an incredibly hard-fought Rally Poland.

The event featured 11 changes of lead and until Saturday afternoon no one managed to extend an advantage beyond 4.5 seconds out front, despite heavy rain making conditions extremely challenging on Friday in particular.

What began as a four-car battle eventually distilled down to Neuville's Hyundai versus Ott Tanak's M-Sport Ford, after Sebastien Ogier first dropped back as he struggled more with running first on the road then picked up damage from punctures and Jari-Matti Latvala's Toyota - a long-time leader - had a clutch failure.

The Saturday afternoon stage on which Latvala dropped out proved particularly chaotic, with Neuville slowed by a puncture and Tanak's rear wing falling off.

Consequently while Tanak found himself with the largest lead of anyone so far at 14s, he had no chance of holding onto that cushion with three stages to tackle with a huge downforce deficit.

Neuville was therefore soon back in the lead, only to lose it again when Tanak won Sunday's wet opener.

But Tanak's chance of a second straight WRC win ended on the next stage, when he clipped a bank and spun, damaging his Ford too much to continue given the lack of service on the final morning.

Ott Tanak M-Sport Ford WRC Poland 2017

It marked the second straight year of late heartbreak in Poland for Tanak, who had come close to winning for DMACK there last season before a penultimate-stage puncture.

His exit allowed Neuville to cruise to the finish with a one-minute cushion over Hayden Paddon in a Hyundai one-two.

After a conservative start, Paddon surged forward with three stage wins on Saturday and secured his first podium finish in 12 months.

Ogier fell as low as sixth with his Saturday morning incidents but soon overcame Dani Sordo and then benefited from Tanak and Latvala's retirements to salvage a podium ahead of Sordo.

He then minimised damage to his championship lead by taking second on the powerstage, where Neuville was only fifth, meaning there was only a seven-point swing rather than the 10+ that had seemed likely.

Had Neuville been just 1.6s faster on the powerstage he'd have beaten Ogier to second place on it rather than only picked up a solitary bonus point for fifth.

M-Sport's WRC2 regular Teemu Suninen starred on his World Rally Car debut with a stage win on Friday and what should have been fifth place until a powerstage spin left him kicking himself and down to sixth behind Stephane Lefebvre.

On a largely terrible weekend for Citroen, which had benched Kris Meeke - who started 2017 as its title hope - for this rally, Lefebvre's very strong drive to fifth provided some cheer.

Meeke's replacement Andreas Mikkelsen had to work hard just to reach ninth having hit a tree stump on Friday morning then had various misadventures while recovering.

Citroen did make progress with its set-up from a terrible Friday in the wet - when Craig Breen, already way down the order due to an early driveshaft problem, said he was constantly "petrified" of crashing - to show better pace in the dry. Breen eventually finished 11th.

DMACK could not replicate its near-win of 2016, its tyre struggling on the wettest stages.

But it worked perfectly on the Mikolajki Arena superspecial, where Elfyn Evans was fastest on all three evenings it was run.

Evans finished eighth overall behind Mads Ostberg, holding off a closing Mikkelsen by 4.4s at the end.

Esapekka Lappi starred again for Toyota with an early fifth place, unable to match the lead pack but comfortably clear of everyone else, but then damaged his suspension on Friday afternoon and retired.

An array of technical problems meant Juho Hanninen could only manage 10th in the remaining Toyota, losing a place to Mikkelsen on the very last stage - where Latvala showed what might have been by taking the powerstage win.

LEADING FINISHERS AFTER SS23:

PosDriverTeamCarGap
1Thierry Neuville, N.GilsoulHyundai MotorsportHyundai2h40m46.1s
2Hayden Paddon, S.MarshallHyundai MotorsportHyundai1m23.9s
3Sebastien Ogier, J.IngrassiaM-Sport World Rally TeamFord2m20.8s
4Dani Sordo, M.MartiHyundai MotorsportHyundai2m47.4s
5Stephane Lefebvre, G.MoreauCitroen Total Abu Dhabi WRTCitroen3m11.8s
6Teemu Suninen, M.MarkkulaM-Sport World Rally TeamFord3m16.8s
7Mads Ostberg, O.FloeneM-Sport World Rally TeamFord3m39.6s
8Elfyn Evans, D.BarrittM-Sport World Rally TeamFord4m39.1s
9Andreas Mikkelsen, A.JagerCitroen Total Abu Dhabi WRTCitroen4m43.5s
10Juho Hanninen, K.LindstromToyota Gazoo Racing WRCToyota4m53.7s

LEADING POWERSTAGE TIMES:

PosDriverTeamCarGap
1Jari-Matti Latvala, M.AnttilaToyota Gazoo Racing WRCToyota8m57.5s
2Sebastien Ogier, J.IngrassiaM-Sport World Rally TeamFord4.9s
3Andreas Mikkelsen, A.JagerCitroen Total Abu Dhabi WRTCitroen5.3s
4Stephane Lefebvre, G.MoreauCitroen Total Abu Dhabi WRTCitroen6.3s
5Thierry Neuville, N.GilsoulHyundai MotorsportHyundai6.4s

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS:

PosDriverPoints
1Sebastien Ogier160
2Thierry Neuville149
3Jari-Matti Latvala112
4Ott Tanak108
5Dani Sordo82
6Elfyn Evans57
7Hayden Paddon51
8Craig Breen43
9Juho Hanninen30
10Kris Meeke27
11Stephane Lefebvre22
12Andreas Mikkelsen21
13Esapekka Lappi20
14Mads Ostberg18
15Teemu Suninen13
16Jan Kopecky5
17Pontus Tidemand4
18Eric Camilli2
19Stephane Sarrazin2
20Yohan Rossel1
21Bryan Bouffier1

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