Hayden Paddon led an exciting Rally Italia Sardegna on Friday night with the top five drivers covered by less than 15sec.
The New Zealander has endured a never-ending stream of problems this year, but led by 8.2sec after a gruelling first full day in scorching temperatures and on rocky roads.
Four different drivers led this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship before Paddon secured top spot this afternoon. He overcame a broken damper in his Hyundai i20 to head a tightly-clustered pack of four pursuers.
The Mediterranean island’s roads were covered in slippery gravel and Paddon targeted an error-free day to earn a prime start position on clean tracks for tomorrow’s longest leg.
“It’s been a difficult afternoon. Things weren’t right with a small problem on the car. The main target was to get a good road position for tomorrow and that’s mission accomplished. I love tomorrow’s stages, they suit me and they suit the car,” said Paddon.
Team-mate Thierry Neuville was second. The Belgian gradually climbed the leaderboard, despite facing the worst of the slippery conditions. An overshoot and two punctures, which he survived despite carrying only one spare wheel, cost time.
Ott Tänak was 1.3sec behind in a Ford Fiesta, the Estonian’s only issues being a heavy landing and a half-spin. He was 0.3sec ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala’s Toyota Yaris, who also fared well from a difficult start position.
Mads Østberg was third for much of the day in a Fiesta. The Norwegian’s gamble of mixing soft and hard compound Michelin tyres didn’t pay off in temperatures that topped 30°C and he dropped to fifth.
Sixth was Juho Hänninen, who led briefly and was second until hitting a bank in the final speed test. The impact cracked a radiator pipe and he faced a nerve-wracking journey to the overnight halt in Alghero with water leaking from the engine of his Yaris.
Road opener and championship leader Sébastien Ogier struggled for grip all day in his Fiesta. The frustrated Frenchman was seventh, 41.0sec off the lead.
Esapekka Lappi was eighth in another Yaris. The Finn lost second gear this morning and broke a damper this afternoon, but reeled off a string of three stage victories – his first at WRC level.
Andreas Mikkelsen returned to the series in a Citroën C3 for the first time since last season was ninth. He lost time after stalling six times this afternoon. Eric Camilli completed the leaderboard in a Fiesta R5.
There were several high-profile victims. Kris Meeke [below] rolled his C3 out of the lead, team-mate Craig Breen stopped with an oil leak in his gearbox and Elfyn Evans retired after crashing his Ford Fiesta. Turbo problems cost Dani Sordo more than 11 minutes.
Saturday’s leg is the longest of the weekend. After a 05.00 departure from Alghero, competitors face two identical loops of stages covering 143.16km, placing high demands on tyre wear. Each loop ends with the Monte Lerno stage and the famous Micky’s Jump.
Head to WRC+ to see the latest onboard and video reports from Rally Italia Sardegna.