Ott Tänak shrugged off the effects of an inferior road position to lead Neste Rally Finland after a day of high-speed excitement in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Running third on the road through Friday’s nine all-gravel forest stages, Tänak had been expected to struggle for pace on what was, at times, a more loose and less stable road surface.
Instead, the Estonian capitalised on a performance he described as being “close to perfect” – plus an upgraded engine in his TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Yaris WRC – to lead Mads Østberg at the overnight halt in Jyväskylä by 5.8s.
“Today was about getting a good road position for tomorrow,” said Tänak. “We had almost 10 cars between [Østberg and me] so it will be a fair fight tomorrow and I believe it will be different. Our day has been close to perfect. The road position was not in our favour but I did everything I could.”
Østberg, driving for a revitalised Citroën team following pre-event suspension and set-up tweaks, moved in front on SS4 and traded the lead with Tänak four times on the back of an accomplished driving display.
“The first two stages [this afternoon] were nice but after that we had to save the tyres because of the tyre wear,” said Østberg. “We had to drive clever because it was all about getting though the afternoon stages without losing a lot of time.”
Tänak had set out for the afternoon loop leading Østberg by 1.1s but was soon down to second, dropping behind his rival by a mere 0.1s when the Norwegian went 1.2s quicker through SS6. Tänak described his run as “quite rubbish” due to a bout of oversteer, while Østberg said taking risks in the hanging dust clouds had been key to his stage-winning effort.
They tied on time over the 20.04 kilometres of Moksi, SS7, before Tänak momentarily stalled at a 90-degree left-hander on SS8. The time loss gave Østberg an advantage of 1.9s, which could have been greater had he not dropped his pace to preserve his car through some of the rougher, rutted sections.
However, Østberg’s lead wouldn’t last as Tänak moved ahead by 1.0s after completing SS9 2.9s quicker. He set the pace again on SS10, this time beating Østberg by 3.3s and again in Harju by 1.4s.
Having dropped to fifth going off the road on the final corner of SS5, Teemu Suninen hit back on SS6, going third quickest to complete the provisional top three until Jari-Matti Latvala got the better of his younger Flying Finn on SS7 and move back into third where he remains overnight.
Suninen then lost out to Hayden Paddon on SS10, despite the New Zealander “struggling for balance” in his Hyundai on worn tyres, while Suninen reported a loss of brakes on SS11.
Elfyn Evans was sixth starting SS10 but slowed near the finish to allow his five-time world champion team-mate Sébastien Ogier to move ahead and gain a more favourable road position for day two in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta.
It proved a tough opening day for world championship leader Thierry Neuville, who is 10th overnight and had his Hyundai mechanics to thank for completing a major repair at midday service. The Belgian damaged the rear of his car hitting a tree when he went off the road early in SS5. “It’s lots about road position,” Neuville said at the end of SS10. “We struggled for grip and we struggled for consistency.”
Having struggled for confidence and a centre differential issue in the morning – his efforts not helped by an early stall – Esapekka Lappi was back on form in the afternoon, twice going second quickest. He starts day two in eighth, 0.3s behind Evans in seventh.
“It took a while to get into the rhythm,” said the Toyota driver and last year’s Neste Rally Finland winner. “But now I can trust the car and the feeling is much better.”
SS8 winner Craig Breen is ninth following a time-consuming puncture on SS2 and a fuel valve issue on SS11, which also slowed his Abu Dhabi-based team-mate Khalid Al-Qassimi.
It was a day to forget for Andreas Mikkelsen who went off into a ditch and rolled after 4.9 kilometres of Ässämäki this morning. He was four minutes late leaving service while his Hyundai was repaired and then damaged the front-left of the i20 Coupe WRC on the day-closing Harju superspecial striking a tyre barrier. “It was not the best day,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old Kalle Rovanperä from the works ŠKODA team leads Eerik Pietarinen and Jari Huttunen in a Finnish 1-2-3 in WRC2 after Norway’s Ole Christian Veiby dropped back with brake issues following an off-road moment. At the finish of Harju, Rovanperä revealed he was fortunate to still be in front after hitting two rocks during the afternoon loop.
Future Rally Star of Finland Henri Hokkala had moved into second place in WRC3 after winning his class on SS6, his second consecutive stage victory, but crashed heavily on SS7. Emil Bergkvist lost the class lead to Ken Torn with a reported puncture on SS9.
Neste Rally Finland, TOP 10 Results after 11/23 Special Stages
1. Ott Tänak (EST) 1:04:14.9
2. Mads Östberg (NOR) +5.8
3. Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) +23.1
4. Hayden Paddon (NZL) +36.4
5. Teemu Suninen (FIN) +46.1
6. Sébastien Ogier (FRA) +58.9
7. Elfyn Evans (GBR) +1:01.1
8. Esapekka Lappi (FIN) +1:01.4
9. Craig Breen (IRL) +1:34.1
10. Thierry Neuville (BEL) +1:57.7
Neste Rally Finland continues with eight special stages on Saturday.