Ott Tanak has taken the early lead of Wales Rally GB and the Estonian — who heads into the event with three consecutive FIA World Rally Championship wins — has an 8.9-second advantage after Friday morning’s loop of stages. Local hero and 2017 victor Elfyn Evans is second with Jari-Matti Latvala third on his 17th outing on Britain’s round of the series.
The event got underway Thursday night with a short blast around the spectator-friendly Tir Prince Raceway, where Esapekka Lappi took the overnight lead. Today, however, the crews headed southwest of the Deeside base for two loops of three forest stages, the morning loop then rounded off with two runs through the short, and new, ‘Slate Mountain’ stage.
Tanak was on the pace from the outset and is once again at a speed his rivals are struggling to match. The Toyota driver, second in the championship standings, set three consecutive fastest times over the muddy and slippery forest stages to pull out a nine-second lead. In the two runs through Slate Mountain, where rain and fog descended, he lost out to his rivals but takes a useful lead into the repeated afternoon stages.
Evans, who took a historic win on his home event last year, heads the M-Sport Ford challenge and the Welshman has had a good morning, despite losing concentration with a puncture alarm in the second stage. He is 6.5 seconds ahead of Tanak’s teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala. Like everyone, the Finn has found the conditions incredibly slippery and is struggling with understeer on the Yaris WRC. After a confidence-boosting win in the second Slate Mountain stage, Latvala is however hoping that a change of diff settings in service will further aid his afternoon charge.
Teemu Suninen is fourth after a solid morning and is in the fight with Latvala, the two Finns split by 6.1 seconds. Suninen’s only mistake of the morning was a missed junction and he will doubtless be looking to mount a full-out assault this afternoon. He is however being chased down by championship leader Thierry Neuville who has suffered understeer during the morning. The Belgian hit a chicane in the second stage, dropping from third to sixth, and isn’t confident the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC is reacting as he wants. He also had a half spin in the final forest stage before winning the first run of Slate Mountain to climb to fourth. Neuville dropped back behind Suninen in the second run of the stage but will head into the afternoon just three-tenths of a second adrift of the Finn.
Craig Breen is just 1.1 seconds further adrift in sixth. The Irish driver has fared well but admitted to needing to up the pace on what he considers to be his home round of the championship. Lappi, last night’s leader, had a half spin in the first stage and the Finn is at a loss to understand why he is “just too slow.” He is seventh ahead of reigning FIA World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier. The Frenchman was running well until the Fiesta was struck with a gearbox problem in the third stage, leaving him without first and second gears. He then also had two half spins in the stage but managed to complete the tight Slate Mountain tests without dropping too much more time. He is, however, nearly 30 seconds off the lead.
Citroen’s Mads Ostberg, another driver to be suffering with understeer, is ninth with Hayden Paddon 10th. The New Zealander is also struggling to get a good feeling and went off in the second stage. His teammate Andreas Mikkelsen is 11th, the Norwegian unable to get any feeling with the car.
Young Finn Kalle Rovanpera is setting the stages alight in the FIA WRC 2 Championship and won four of the five stages to top reigning category champion Pontus Tidemand. The Skoda teammates are split by 37.9 seconds with Tidemand needing to win this event to keep his championship hopes alive. Gus Greensmith is third.
In the FIA WRC 3 Championship, local driver Tom Williams has already established a 90-second advantage, heading Rallye Deutschland winner Taisko Lario.