FINLAND, 30th July, 2016 (WAM)–A perfect day’s racing on the ultra-fast roads of Rally Finland left Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle top of the overall standings.

At the end of the opening leg, the British-Irish crew leads the rally by 18.1s. With Craig Breen and Scott Martin fighting for a place on the podium, it is fair to say that the Abu Dhabi Total WRT had a very positive day! Following Thursday evening’s super special stage, Rally Finland got properly underway this morning with an opening loop made up of five timed stages: Mokkipera, Halinen, Jukojarvi, Surkee and Horka. On SS2, Kris Meeke did not seem to be too troubled by the damp conditions which were expected to make his starting position less favourable. The Abu Dhabi Total claimed the stage win to take the early overall lead. Craig Breen also got off to a flying start with the seventh fastest time.

Mainly challenged by Jari-Matti Latvala and Ott Tanak for the lead, Kris Meeke was initially involved in a close battle at the front. But his rivals’ minor mistakes meant they were unable to keep pace with the Northern Irishman. After a second stage win on SS5, the Ulsterman’s lead was almost twenty seconds at the mid-leg service.

Very comfortable throughout the morning, Craig Breen set a superb third fastest time on Surkee. He therefore moved ahead of Mikkelsen and Neuville to snatch fourth position. However, on the last stage of the morning loop, he opted to run straight on after braking slightly too late into a corner to avoid running the risk of going off. He lost a few seconds and therefore made it back to mid-leg service sixth overall.

After a half-hour break, the crews set off again for a long loop, tackling the ??nekoski, M?kkiper?, Jukoj?rvi, Surki, Horkka and Harju stages.

Kris Meeke remained consistently among the front-runners and went fastest on SS8 and SS11. But the gaps remained very tight: in total, the Abu Dhabi Total WRT driver lost just 7/10ths to Latvala over the 74.74km of stages in the afternoon loop.

Craig Breen also kept up his solid performance: with a second fastest time on SS7, he reclaimed fourth position. He was then more cautious on the rougher sections of the next two stages, before having a bit of a moment on SS10. The Irishman ended the first leg in the top 5, within ten seconds of a place on the podium.

In the third car entered by the Abu Dhabi Total WRT, Khalid Al Qassimi and Chris Patterson ended the day in 23rd place after adopting a consistent and safe pace.

Kris Meeke (#7): “I’m really surprised to have led throughout this first leg and to finish with a twenty-second lead. Latvala and Tanak were very quick today, but I managed to pull clear when they had problems. Otherwise, it was a constant battle, like it always is here. A really close fight with just a few tenths in it. My aim is still the same: do the best job possible. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I don’t absolutely have to win. So I’ll stick with the same strategy tomorrow, doing my best whilst staying just within the limit. It will be very difficult with two runs on Ouninpohja, in the reverse direction to recent years. I’ll have be really focused, especially on the morning run.”

Craig Breen (#8): “I might just be the happiest man in Jyvaskyla tonight! From start to finish, we thoroughly enjoyed every moment in the car today. Even though I have competed here many times before, you really do go a lot quicker in a World Rally Car and the feeling is immense. Obviously, everything wasn’t perfect, but we learned a lot, especially on the second pass. I think I can safely say that it was best day of my career as a rally driver! I didn’t think that I’d be so high up the standings and within ten seconds of the podium “

Khalid Al Qassimi (#24): “It’s been a fantastic day for us. We tried to steer clear of the worst of the trouble and we had a strategy that enabled us to start with a good rhythm. The car worked just as I wanted it to and we were a lot quicker than last year on the same stages. I even felt that I could have gone even quicker still. The second pass was very difficult for the car, with a lot of embedded rocks. I opted to drive more cautiously in these sections.”

STANDINGS 1. Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle (DS 3 WRC) 1:13:22.2 2. Latvala / Anttila (VW Polo R WRC) +18.1 3. Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +44.3 4. Mikkelsen / Jaeger (VW Polo R WRC) +45.4 5. Breen / Martin (DS 3 WRC) +53.8 6. Paddon / Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC) +58.2 7. ?stberg / Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:02.9 8. T?nak / Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:14.4 9. Camilli / Veillas (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:22.6 22. Lappi / Ferm (Skoda Fabia R5) +2:01.8