Thierry Neuville grabbed the lead of WRC Rally Sweden in Friday night’s closing miles after an extraordinary opening leg in which five drivers topped the leaderboard.
The Belgian Hyundai driver demoted Elfyn Evans’ Toyota GR Yaris Rally 1 in the concluding snow and ice-coated special stage on the edge of host city Umea to end the day with a 4.3s advantage in his Hyundai i20 N Rally.
Neuville was fifth with two of the seven special stages remaining, but as darkness fell he delivered his best pace of the day to climb the order.
A Toyota trio of Kalle Rovanpera, Evans and Esapekka Lappi completed a leading quartet blanketed by just 8.8s after 78 miles of furious forest road action.
“It’s been a very strong afternoon,” Neuville said. “We knew conditions wouldn’t be very good being second on the road, but our tire management worked quite well and we were able to catch back time in the last two stages. We did some small setup changes in midday and I felt very comfortable.”
Rovanpera’s equally skilled management of the studded Pirelli tires paid off. Having led after the morning loop, despite running first on the road, the 21-year-old Finn lost time during the afternoon stages in the worst of the conditions, but careful tire usage and fastest time on the closing stage allowed him to climb back from sixth to second.
Evans struggled with the handling of his GR Yaris initially. The Welshman snatched the lead by winning the afternoon’s opening stage, but tired tires cost him in the closing test and he fell to third, 7.4s off the lead.
On his first start with Toyota Gazoo Racing since 2018, Lappi made a stunning return. He led after two stages, but a stall at the start of the next dropped him down the order. He found grip hard to come by in the closing miles, but still ended the day just 1.4s behind Evans.
Oliver Solberg ran as high as second and remained in the fight for the lead until the closing test when he overshot a junction in his Hyundai i20 N and ended almost a half-minute off the lead in fifth.
Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta was sixth in another GR Yaris after losing time in a snowbank, with M-Sport Ford duo Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith seventh and eighth, respectively, as they got to grips with the conditions and the deceptively-inviting snowbanks that line the stages.
Hyundai’s Ott Tanak led after the opening stage, but luck was against the Estonian and he retired during the afternoon loop after an impact on the fifth special stage triggered the warning system on his car’s hybrid unit.
M-Sport Ford’s Craig Breen was the other major retirement. The Irishman dived into a snowbank early in the second stage. He regained the road, but a second visit into the snow proved terminal as his Puma Rally1 came to rest on top of a bank.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champ Andreas Mikkelsen (Skoda Fabia Evo) holds a 4.1s lead over fellow Norwegian Ole Christian Veiby (Volkswagen Polo GTi), with Nikolay Gryazin’s Skoda in third.
Saturday features two identical loops of three special stages, which are split by a single service, covering 51.14 competitive miles in total. The Brattby and Langed tests west of the rally base in Umea are followed by a final test on the edge of the city.
WRC Rally Sweden, leading positions after Day One, SS7
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 1h02m31.2s
2 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4.3s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +7.4s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +8.8s
5 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +28.1s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m18.9s
7 Adrien Fourmaux/Alex Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m25.7s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m32.9ss
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2 leader) +3m08.9s
10 Ole Christian Veiby/Stig Rune Skjaermoen (Volkswagen Polo GTi) +3m13.0s
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