The Welshman won the opening speed test in his Ford Fiesta, his seventh victory in 10 stages. A slow puncture in the next test, followed by another when a pace note mix up sent him into a bank, reduced his advantage to 44sec at the midpoint.
In the afternoon his car’s aerodynamic rear diffuser was ripped off in a heavy landing, affecting its handling, especially in the high speed sections. A final stage spin then allowed the charging Belgian to close.
He said, “We had no major problems, just a lot of niggly things. There was something strange with the rear, the car was soft and oversteering and I didn’t feel comfortable.
“We didn’t come here to finish second after all this work, so if he wants the win, he’s going to have to bloody fight for it!”
Neuville punctured when his Hyundai i20 Coupe hit a bank after he was blinded by early morning sun. Mid-leg gearbox and front differential changes briefly disrupted his rhythm, but victories in the final two stages turned the pressure on Evans.
Ott Tänak was just 8.4sec behind Neuville after a strong day in his Fiesta. The Estonian saw off team-mate Sébastien Ogier and Mads Østberg before cementing third with two afternoon stage wins.
Østberg couldn’t match Friday’s pace and second place became fourth as his diffuser was also torn off. The Norwegian eventually retired after damaging his suspension against a rock in the penultimate stage.
Ogier trailed Tänak in fourth by 18.4sec after a series of problems. He spun in a watersplash and had little confidence in his ill-handling car. The team made major changes at the rear which improved his afternoon speed.
Jari-Matti Latvala and Hayden Paddon filled out the top six. Latvala played with the set-up of his Toyota Yaris while Paddon broke the anti-roll bar in his i20.
Sunday’s finale is one of the WRC’s classic days. Two passes through the famous hanging bridges of El Condor sandwich the lunar-like landscape of Giulio Cesare, both high in the Traslasierra mountains.
The three rocky stages cover 55.28km, with the second pass through El Condor offering Power Stage bonus points to the fastest five drivers.