Just five points blanket the leading three drivers as the FIA World Rally Championship embarks on a crucial phase of five fixtures on gravel, the series’ dominant surface, in Argentina.
Thierry Neuville edged into a two-point lead over Sébastien Ogier after snatching a dramatic late victory in Corsica last month. Former leader Ott Tänak slipped to third, a further three points adrift, after four of the 14 rounds.
The middle third of the campaign starts on Xion Rally Argentina’s (25 - 29 April) dirt roads. It is the first of a south American double-header which continues when Copec Rally Chile (9 - 12 May) makes its WRC bow on the other side of the Andes Mountains two weeks later.
Almost a million fans are expected to line the demanding speed tests in Cordoba province, 700km north-west of Buenos Aires, for one of the season’s most atmospheric rounds.
Neuville’s first 2019 win means the Hyundai i20 driver will be first to start Friday’s special stages. The Belgian is all too aware that Argentina’s roads demand clever thinking as well as outright pace.
“As one of the roughest rallies of the season, it requires a careful approach. On the one hand, we need to look after the car but on the other there are some sections where you can really attack. It’s a balancing act,” he explained.
Remarkably, six-time champion Ogier has never won in Argentina and the Frenchman admitted it is a statistic he wants to erase from the record books.
“I would even go as far as to say I feel slightly more motivated by the prospect of winning this rally for the first time. The type of roads used varies a lot, but what really stands out is how rough the gravel can be in places,” said the Citroën C3 pilot.
Tänak dominated 12 months ago, recovering from an early spin to claim his first victory for Toyota Gazoo Racing. The Yaris World Rally Car driver is clear about his expectations.
“We’re expecting nothing less this year. I believe we should be able to perform well again here. The fast roads and the kind of surface we have in Argentina should really suit our car quite well,” said the Estonian.
Heavy rain has soaked the region in recent days and with more scheduled ahead of the start, the roads are likely to be soft with plenty of water filling the famous river crossings.
The rally starts in Villa Carlos Paz on Thursday night. Competitors face 18 gravel road stages covering 347.50km before Sunday afternoon’s finish.