Ott Tänak holds a narrow lead of just 3.8s over Esapekka Lappi after the pair put on a thrilling duel on a full-throttle first day at Secto Rally Finland, while behind them Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä are in a close battle for the final podium position.
Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team’s Tänak and co-driver Martin Järveoja took three stage wins despite professing to be uncomfortable in their i20 N Rally1. But four top times and three consecutive wins at the end of day allowed Lappi and co-driver Janne Ferm to close the gap and set up what is sure to be an unmissable morning of action for the second leg on Saturday.
“In this stage I tried to go a bit faster, but then the mistakes start to come,” said a downbeat Tänak after the final stage of the day, Sahloinen-Moksi. “It’s been a tiring day and my battery is flat. Bed is waiting!”
Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Lappi was more upbeat after taking 1.5s out of his rival’s lead on that closing stage. “It’s been a very good day,” he said. “The car has been amazing today and the driving also has been really good. We started to improve our speed this afternoon and it’s a nice fight for tomorrow.”
Bright and sunny conditions welcomed the crews as they faced the first of nine stages that made up leg one. Tänak got off to a flying start to win the 11.75km Laukaa test, but disaster befell his team-mate Oliver Solberg who crashed out of the rally after just 300 metres. The Hyundai ran wide at the first left-hander and was pitched into a roll that left the i20 N Rally1 with roll-cage damage that has ruled out a return this weekend under the restart rule.
“It was the first left-hander from the start and mid-way through it just snapped, and I knew then I could never save it,” said Solberg. “I was hoping just to clip the trees or something, but I hit a rock that flipped me around, I spun into the trees and unfortunately rolled. I yelled more in shock than frustration. I didn’t expect the rear to go away. I knew the car is a bit lively and I had difficulties yesterday in shakedown, but I didn’t expect it at the first corner.”
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Adrien Fourmaux was another early casualty when he was forced to stop his Puma Rally1 seven kilometres into the second stage of the morning, Lankamaa, after damaging a steering arm in a corner cut. After returning to service, Fourmaux lost his power steering to cap a troubled day.
Out front, Tänak built a slender 5.4s lead over Lappi during two runs over Laukaa and what turned out to be a single attempt at Lankamaa after the second was cancelled because of a safety issue. The crews then tackled the shortened version of the Harju parkland test that had kicked off the rally in Jyväskylä on Thursday evening, after which Tänak had increased his advantage over Lappi to 6.2s, with Evans (Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT) and Craig Breen (M-Sport Ford World Rally Team) next up. FIA World Rally Championship leader Rovanperä, disadvantaged by running first on the road all day, was fifth at this stage, 15.3s down on Tänak’s lead.
Following service, the crews headed back out for two runs each over a pair of fresh stages, starting with the 12.31km Ässämäki test, where Tänak pushed on and stretched his lead over Lappi by another 2.1s – only for the Finn to take back exactly that amount of time on the 15.70km Sahloinen-Moksi test. Lappi then stormed to another pair of stage wins on the final tests of the day to leave the battle for the lead finally poised.
Evans held third place throughout the day, but found himself hunted by team-mate Rovanperä, whose first-on-the-road pace improved as the afternoon turned into evening. The Finn demoted Breen for fourth on SS7 and closed to within 0.5s at the end of the penultimate test. Evans responded with a faster time, second to Lappi, on the final stage to end the day 1.7s ahead of the points leader. The Welshman is 19.3s off Lappi’s lead.
“I can’t say I’m satisfied,” said 2021 Rally Finland winner Evans. “I’ve just not really felt with it from the word go. It’s been OK, don’t get me wrong, but you need everything to be just so and we haven’t hit the mark. We’ve definitely been better these last couple of stages, so hopefully we can carry some momentum into tomorrow.”
“I have to be quite happy,” said Rovanperä, who will no longer be first on the road in leg two. “I think we pushed quite hard all the time and we could not do much more.”
Breen lies fifth, just three seconds ahead of Toyota driver Takamoto Katsuta who took a stage win on Harju. Thierry Neuville, winner of the opening stage on Thursday night, is seventh after a day in which he reported his confidence built as the leg progressed. M-Sport duo Pierre-Louis Loubet and Gus Greensmith complete the top 10.
In WRC2, Teemu Suninen and co-driver Mikko Markkula head the pack in 11th overall in their Hyundai i20 N, 19.4s clear of Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hämäläinen in their Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo. “It’s been a good day,” said Suninen. “The other guys are giving some pressure. Tomorrow is a quite a tough day with long stages and challenging crests, so we want more like today.”