ROME (Reuters) - Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville extended his lead in the World Rally Championship after beating M-Sport Ford rival Sebastien Ogier by a fraction of a second in a nail-biting finale in Sardinia on Sunday.
The Belgian went into the final 6.96km stage of the Italian event with eight tenths to make up on the reigning champion, who had started the day 3.9 seconds clear, and emerged triumphant with an advantage of 0.7.
The winning margin, after 313.46km of competitive stages over the dusty, rocky tracks of the Mediterranean island, was the third smallest in the 45-year history of the world championship.
Finnish driver Espekka Lappi finished third for Toyota, his first podium of the season, while New Zealander Hayden Paddon was fourth for Hyundai.
The results remained provisional, with France’s five-times world champion Ogier risking a penalty after he left the end of the penultimate Cala Flumini 2 stage without collecting his time card.
Neuville, who now has a 27 point lead over Ogier after seven of 13 rounds, took five bonus points from the final power stage with Ogier second and collecting four. The next rally is on gravel in Finland at the end of July.
“I can’t believe it. We knew we had to give it everything we had this morning, and it was a truly fantastic fight with Sebastien,” said Neuville after his team’s third win of the season.
“The gap at the end was so small and we left absolutely nothing behind. We kept pushing as hard as we could without doing anything stupid.
“Battling against Seb is one of the most difficult things to do, so this is a precious victory.”
Ogier said he had “lost one battle but definitely not the war.
“It’s not the time to panic. I tried everything I could today but I was always losing a few tenths here and there,” added the reigning champion.
Hyundai are also leading the manufacturers’ standings, 28 points clear of M-Sport Ford.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar