- Irishman pips factory Hyundai team-mate Ott Tänak in climax to thrilling opening leg
- Final-stage win lifts Elfyn Evans into third for Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC
- Esapekka Lappi heads Kalle Rovanperä as fastest Finn in privately run Toyota
- Teemu Suninen leads WRC2, Lindholm in front in WRC3
A dramatic final stage run into darkness turned Secto Automotive Rally Finland on its head at the end of day one, as Craig Breen snatched the top spot from team-mate Ott Tänak to cap a thrilling FIA World Rally Championship return for the event in its 70th anniversary year.
Just 7.9 seconds separates the top five ahead of the second leg on Saturday, after Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team duo Breen and Tänak went head to head over six fast and spectacular gravel tests. They took a pair of stage wins each, but it was Breen who overturned Tänak’s advantage on the final 19.75km Oittila test as darkness engulfed the crews and changed the complexion of their battle. The Irishman leads the Estonian by just 2.8s overnight.
Large and enthusiastic crowds heralded the start of the rally early on Friday afternoon with the short 2.31-kilometre Harju urban test, made up by a mix of asphalt and parkland gravel near the centre of host city Jyväskylä. Japanese Takamoto Katsuta kicked off a rally everyone has been looking forward to with a fine effort over the opener to claim a stage win first time out with his new co-driver, Irishman Aaron Johnston. The Toyota Yaris WRC driver, who counts this as his home rally – because he lives in Jyväskylä – was 0.2s quicker than Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC, with Esapekka Lappi giving the locals something else to cheer by going third in his privately run RTE-Motorsport Toyota. The short test caused little problem for most, although there was a wrinkle of concern for Breen. “I really struggled with some strange things in the car and I need to understand why,” said the Hyundai man.
Out of Jyväskylä the crews plunged directly into the forests on the fast and flowing 12.31km Ässämäki stage, last run in 2016 in the other direction. In fine and dry conditions, Breen put his stage-one problems behind him to set the fastest time in 5m44.8s. “It’s so, so nice,” he enthused to WRC.com’s All Live service. “You can be so committed and I don’t have the words for it. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Tänak was just 0.3s slower, leaving the 2019 FIA World Rally Champion with a narrow lead of less than a second over Breen in the overall standings. Katsuta gave himself a fright after his bright start on Harju. He somehow managed not to hit anything with a 360-degree spin after 7.3km. “In a very high speed corner there was a bump inside and we kicked out from the bump,” he explained. “Luckily we didn’t hit anything. We are here and it’s fine – these things can happen in this rally.” The moment dropped him from first to 10th in the order.
Next up the crews headed straight into the longest stage of the day, Sahloinen-Moksi over 21.37km, where the leading Hyundais once again flew, the honours this time going to Tänak – by a scant second. That left him with a lead in the overall standings of 1.7s over Breen, the pair building a small gap to the impressive Lappi, Elfyn Evans and EKO Acropolis Rally of Gods winner Kalle Rovanperä, the latter frustrated by his pace on his 21st birthday. Tänak said: “I was not happy in the first stage with the car. I had quite a bad pre-event [test], so we changed a lot and it seems to be working.”
After a break and a tyre change, the crews returned to Ässämäki for SS4 in late-afternoon low sunshine. Tänak increased his advantage with a fantastic drive to win his second stage in a row and was much happier with his Hyundai than he had been on his earlier run. “I changed the car balance a bit and it’s following a bit better,” he said. “The feeling is coming step by step and we are learning, so it’s getting better.” In contrast, Breen was frustrated after losing ground as Rovenperä beat him to the second fastest time. “I have something loose in the rear of the car – I don’t know what it is, maybe a diffuser or something.”
Lappi dropped from third overall to fifth, behind Evans and Rovanperä, on his first appearance in a World Rally Car since Rally Monza last December. “I thought I did well,” he said. “I don’t know what we should do to be honest – it felt like a good push.”
The crews returned to Schloinen-Moksi for the penultimate stage of the day – and Breen hit back with his second stage win of the day, pipping Rovanperä by a second and taking 2.3s out of Tänak’s overall advantage. The Hyundai pair were now separated at the top of the leader board by just 1.5s, with Rovanpera third 8.3s back and Lappi in fourth. Evans had dropped to fifth, with Neuville completing the top six.
The highly anticipated final stage of the day, Oittila, ran for 19.75km, created dramatic images as the crews headed into Finnish darkness – and overturned the order at the front. Evans came into his own to bank an impressive stage win, but Lappi came close to snatching it away from him, a flirtation with a ditch right at the end of the stage leaving the home hero just 1.6s off the Welshman. Breen was third fastest and with Rovanpera and Ogier between him and Tänak that effort was good enough for him to claim the overall rally lead overnight from his team-mate.
“It’s amazing,” said Breen. “I always questioned what Finland would be like in the dark and now we’ve felt it and witnessed it. It’s absolutely incredible. My lights weren’t 100 per cent to be honest, I have a bit of work to do on them, but it’s just incredible.”
Evans’s stage win boosted him from fifth to third overnight, 6.1s down on Breen. Lappi is a remarkable fourth, ahead of fellow Finn Rovanpera. Neuville is sixth in his Hyundai, with FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier – running first on the road all day – down in seventh. Katsuta recovered from his SS2 to spin to hold eighth ahead of the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Fiestas of Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux.
In WRC2, Teemu Suninen enjoyed a successful first day driving his new Movisport Volkswagen Polo GTI to hold the class lead overnight ahead of WRC3 leader Emil Lindholm in his Skoda Fabia Evo. Mads Ostberg is second in WRC2 in his TRT World Rally Team Citroën C3 and Nikolay Gryazin’s Moviesport Volkswagen is third.
Leg two of Secto Automotive Rally Finland kicks off on Saturday morning with Kakaristo-Hassi, the first of nine stages for the day, due to start 8h16 local time.
COMING UP NEXT ON SECTO AUTOMOTIVE RALLY FINLAND: SATURDAY OCTOBER 2
Leg two, located south of Jyväskylä and the longest of the rally at 151.95 kilometres, is made up of four stages either side of service at the Paviljonki followed by a return to Harju at 20:00. The day begins with the first of two passes of the 18.17-kilometre Kakaristo-Hassi stage (SS7/SS11) from 08:16. Featuring sections of the iconic Ouninpohja stage, Kakaristo-Hassi gets a new start and finish with the latter last used in 2011. Päijälä (SS8/SS12) ran to a similar layout in 2016 and covers 22.61 kilometres. Sections of the new 13.49-kilometre Arvaja test (SS9/SS13) date back to 1994. Patajoki (SS10/SS14) is another new stage, although parts of the 20.55-kilometre run through narrow and technical forestry roads, appeared on the itinerary between 2002 and 2010 as part of the familiar Vaher and Himos stages.