Ott Tänak closed on Dayinsure Wales Rally GB leader Sébastien Ogier with two consecutive special stage wins to end Friday morning’s opening loop.
Stage info: SS3 / SS4
SS3: Hafren 1, 35.14km
Just a 2.5km liaison section divides Sweet Lamb from Hafren, the longest test of the rally and driven in the opposite direction to 2015. It’s fast throughout on a good surface, although there are muddy sections and rougher parts where the road has been regraded. The final part is spectacular, blasting out of the forest and descending amid stunning mountain views.
SS4: Dyfnant 1, 17.91km
Wide and flowing forest roads characterise the opening half of Dyfnant, with some great corners to entice drivers. Much of the vegetation has been cleared from the road edge to improve vision but log piles on the roadside must be treated with care. The second half is narrower, but equally as inviting as the first.
The Estonian, driving a Ford Fiesta RS, eked 2.2sec from the Frenchman in the long Hafren test before gaining a similar margin in Dyfnant. He headed towards the respite of a tyre change with the gap between them down to 7.7sec.
Although the early morning fog had gone, the gravel tracks were no less muddy and Tänak made a small mistake at a Hafren junction. A set-up tweak ahead of Dyfnant increased his confidence and put the pressure onto a worried Ogier.
“I’m a bit concerned with a small thing on the car. There’s a noise in the transmission but so far it’s working,” said Ogier.
His concerns were heightened by a transmission problem that delivered a blow to team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen’s hopes of finishing runner-up in the championship. A broken front right driveshaft in Dyfnant cost 90sec and with no mid-leg service, it’s an issue he must live with.
“There’s nothing we can cure for the rest of the day. It has been going on all day,” explained the Norwegian, who plummeted to the foot of the top 10 in his rear-wheel drive only Polo R.
Team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala fared better, despite a spin in Hafren. After a cautious start the Finn was third in both tests to climb to third overall, 32.3sec off the duelling duo ahead.
Less than half a second covered Latvala, Kris Meeke and Hayden Paddon, with Paddon firmly focused on the long game. “This afternoon will be the trickiest part of the rally. If we can keep close today we can have a big attack tomorrow when conditions will be more consistent,” he said.
Craig Breen completed the top six ahead of Thierry Neuville, who could benefit most in the runner-up battle from Mikkelsen’s problems. The Belgian survived a spin and stall in Hafren.
Dani Sordo and Mads Østberg headed Mikkelsen, Østberg escaping after sliding his Fiesta RS into some Dyfnant bushes. Team-mate Eric Camilli dropped 1min 40sec after driving with a soft rear left tyre, the legacy of carrying only one spare and suffering two punctures.