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Meeke splashes his way into early lead in muddy Argentina

 

Strong start: Kris Meeke nosed his Toyota in front
Strong start: Kris Meeke nosed his Toyota in front

By Sammy Hamill

It was early days but Kris Meeke had his nose in front after the opening loop of gravel special stages in a wet, muddy Rally Argentina.

The Ulsterman, who won for Citroen in Argentina in 2015, had edged five seconds clear of the field as the cars returned to service after the first five stages, his Toyota Yaris being chased by the Hyundai i20 of World championship leader Thierry Neuville.

Toyota team leader Ott Tanak was just over a further second behind, tied in third with the Citroen of World champion Sebastien Ogier.

Meeke had been in third place after the short spectator stage in Villa Carlos Paz on Thursday night but was fastest in the first test yesterday to reduce the deficit to overnight leader Tänak and then splashed his Toyota to second fastest through the second stage to move in front.

The opening loop ended with two laps of Carlos Paz's theme park which Meeke negotiated carefully as the rain returned. He dropped seven seconds to the fastest time of Andreas Mikkelsen but the Norwegian had lost time earlier when his Hyundai suffered a puncture and he remained back in sixth.

"The morning loop was a big challenge, and not so much about ultimate pace," said Meeke. "It was more about reading the road. The stages here are quite sandy and 70 per cent was what you would expect. But there are places where it was thick black mud for 200 metres and I had to drop a couple of gears just to get through," he explained.

At one point it was an all-Toyota top three but they took no chances in the Carlos Paz superspecial and Jari Matti Latvala dropped back to fifth ahead of Mikkelsen and his Hyunai team-mate Dani Sordo.

Elfyn Evans, who came so close to winning in Argentina last year, was the leading Ford driver in eighth.

Meanwhile, Craig Breen, who was battling with six times WRC champion Ogier for a top six place in Argentina this time last year, is to continue his Irish Tarmac Championship campaign in the Rally of the Lakes next weekend.

Breen was axed by Citroen at the end of 2018 and has been using the Irish and Italian championships to keep himself in the shop window while he seeks a return to World level. He has already won the first three rounds of the Tarmac series - plus the Sanremo Rally in Italy - and will now try to make it four Irish wins in a row in the Killarney-baed Lakes event.

His Ford Fiesta heads the entry list ahead of Manus Kelly who won the rally last year in a WRC Subaru but has now switched to an R5 Hyundai. Alastair Fisher, second in the Tarmac standings behind Breen will start at No.4 ahead of reigning champion Josh Moffett, Robert Barrable, Sam Moffett, Desi Henry, Daniel Cronin, Callum Devine and Jonny Greer.

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