Ott Tänak holds the advantage on Neste Rally Finland, leading the country’s round of the FIA World Rally Championship by a narrow margin of 1.1s after five stages.
The Toyota-driving Estonian led for the first three stages but looked set to reach service in Jyväskylä in second behind Mads Østberg after the Citroën driver went quickest on SS4 to move in front by 0.8s. But “a couple of mistakes” from Østberg on SS5 and a third stage win for Tänak has tipped the balance in the latter’s favour – for now at least.
“We are really on the maximum in every stage,” said Tänak. “It’s obviously really hard but we’ve been quite lucky this morning, that early on the road with so much loose [gravel] and to still be on the top. It’s really a surprise to me so I have no complaints. I can’t do more.”
Østberg, who blitzed SS4 by 3.2s, said: “I was very happy with my time [in SS4] but [SS5] was vey slippery and not easy. For sure I made a couple of mistakes, I tried but I lost some time.”
Jari-Matti Latvala is the top Finn in third, 10.8s behind his rally-leading team-mate, following an off-form run through SS5. “I didn’t have best confidence in this stage so I lost time to Ott. But the fight is on,” he said.
Hayden Paddon profited from a spectacular off-road moment from Teemu Suninen on the final corner of SS5 to demote the Finn to fifth. Elfyn Evans is sixth, one place ahead of five-time world champion Sébastien Ogier, with Craig Breen, Esapekka Lappi and Thierry Neuville completing the provisional top 10.
Neuville, Hyundai’s world championship leader, began SS5 in eighth but an off early in the run resulted in a damaged rear corner and a notable time loss. “Everything was going to plan but I made a mistake,” said Neuville, who is being hampered by running first on the road. “I had a pacenote that was too optimistic [for the previous corner], I was thinking about correcting it but I didn’t hear the next note and I went off. I lost a lot of time.”
Ogier, running second on the road behind Neuville and 27 points adrift in the championship chase, has been quick to praise Tänak’s speed, while highlighting the fact he’s got the edge over Neuville in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta.
“I have to be happy with the morning,” said Ogier. “Okay, we could have gained a couple of tenths in some places, but the important thing is the fight with Thierry. For the [other] guys we have to keep patient and maybe hope for a better road position tomorrow.”
Lappi conceded that his hopes of repeating his Neste Rally Finland triumph from 2017 were “gone” after a stall under braking 2.9 kilometres from the start of SS2. He also came close to rolling on SS5. “For sure I try, there is nothing else I can do. We have changed the car all the time for every stage but I can’t match [my rivals]. I almost rolled, I don’t have grip enough.”
The 20.04-kilometre SS2, Moksi, also proved to be Breen’s undoing when the Irishman picked up a front-left puncture seven kilometres from the stage start. “There was a rock in the road, it’s a disaster,” he said afterwards. Despite the setback, the Citroën driver has rebounded well, missing out in winning SS3 by a scant 0.8s.
Andreas Mikkelsen has also endured a frustrating morning, the Norwegian going off into a ditch and rolling after 4.9 kilometres of Ässämäki and damaging his Hyundai. “I misheard a pacenote, my mistake. The car feels a bit strange and it’s hard to see with the broken glass.”
Finnish teenager Kalle Rovanperä leads WRC2 on his Neste Rally Finland debut, while Emil Bergkvist is in front in WRC3 and Junior WRC.
Meanwhile, Henri Hokkala has lived up to his status as the Future Rally Star of Finland with a succession of rapid category stage times – including a stage win on SS5 – on his world championship debut and his first appearance in the JWRC-spec Ford Fiesta R2.
Following the 30-minute service halt in Jyväskylä, SS6, Oittila, is due to go live at 14:24 local time.
Photo: Taneli Niinimäki / AKK