A lengthened version of the 2012 Kineta stage, it is the longest test of the rally and an easy place to pick up a puncture. For the first 5km the character changes wildly - there’s a bit of everything, from tight and twisty to fast and flowing, rough and smooth. After 14km there is a 4km asphalt section before a couple of hairpins and a switch back to gravel. From then on it’s a challenging mix of high-speed sprints on wide roads, and twisty, technical sections with many hairpins.
How the action unfolded:
The longest stage of the roughest and toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship offered the potential for all kinds of drama – and so it proved.
Championship leader Sebastien Ogier retired with technical problems, Mikko Hirvonen dropped nearly six minutes with steering problems and Mads Ostberg lost more than three minutes with a damaged wheel.
So who escaped the carnage? Evgeny Novikov promised to attack from the start and he didn’t disappoint. The Russian was fastest in his Ford Fiesta RS by 20.6sec from Dani Sordo’s Citroen DS3, with Jari-Matti Latvala’s Volkswagen Polo R 36.3 adrift.
Novikov, a man of few words, restricted himself to just ‘impressive’ before adding: “I had to push. It was only the first stage so I still have to go hard.”
Sordo believed Novikov had struck trouble as, despite a strong wind in the hills east of Loutraki, he encountered hanging dust. The Spaniard admitted that when he heard of his rivals’ issues, he decided not to take any risks and eased his pace.
Latvala lost time with an overshoot after 3km and then the new hydraulic handbrake system on his Polo R caused the Finn problems. “I went straight on after a crest at a slippery and very difficult place. Then I had a handbrake problem. It was not working and I lost 10 seconds,” he said.
Thierry Neuville was fourth, 38.3sec from the lead, in a Fiesta RS, despite proclaiming the car was ‘undriveable’. “It was so rough and I couldn’t turn into the hairpins on these settings. It was so slippery and completely different to last year, so I need to think about the next loop,” the Belgian told WRC Live at the finish.
Andreas Mikkelsen was fifth, despite stalling his Polo R three times at hairpin bends, with Nasser Al-Attiyah sixth, despite hitting the right side of Hirvonen’s car as the Finn’s stricken Citroen DS3 struggled around a tight left corner.
Ogier stopped after 22km with what his Volkswagen team would only say was a technical issue, but they confirmed he would restart tomorrow under Rally 2 rules.
Hirvonen’s problems struck in the final seven kilometres, the Finn explaining: “There was no connection between the steering wheel and the steering rack. When I turned the wheel, it was a long time before anything happened. Sometimes I had to stop and reverse.”
Ostberg appeared to close to tears at the finish. “The wheel fell off,” was all he could say, but the Qatar M-Sport team later explained that the Norwegian hit a kerb and broke a wheel on his Fiesta RS WRC.