Toyota’s Elfyn Evans will start Saturday’s second leg of WRC Rally New Zealand holding a narrow advantage after Friday’s end-of-day leader Ott Tanak landed a 5-second penalty that pushes him down to second, 4.8s behind the Welshman.
Tanak had battled through torrential downpours to lead in his hybrid-powered Hyundai i20 N Rally1 after Friday’s marathon opening leg. But in a hearing later in the evening, event stewards determined that he and teammate Thierry Neuville had exceeded the allowable hybrid boost on Thursday’s curtain-raising short super special stage in downtown Auckland.
The energy released during hybrid boosts on both cars was fractionally higher than the maximum value allowed for that specific stage (241.03 kJ for Tanak and 242.04 kJ for Neuville, vs. 240 kJ). The boost level for the super special had been reduced prior to the event and communicated in a technical bulletin, but Hyundai put its mistake down to human error.
Back to Friday’s action, and Tanak led after the morning’s three stages, lost top spot to a charging Sebastien Ogier during the afternoon’s repeat loop, then reclaimed the lead as the Toyota pilot struggled through the day’s final test with a heavily damaged rear spoiler.
Post-Tanak penalty, just 7.0s covers the leading four drivers after 98.52 miles of frantic action on the longest single leg of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship so far.
Tanak, whose three wins from the last six rallies have narrowed the gap to runaway WRC points leader Kalle Rovanpera, opened up an early slender advantage as heavy downpours punctuated the morning’s stages on the flowing, cambered gravel roads in the Waikato Region.
But when the rain clouds briefly parted ahead of the second pass of Whaanga Coast that kicked off the afternoon loop, Tanak was hampered by an early road position and struggled for traction as the surface dried and became looser. He was passed by Evans, as well as the Welshman’s Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate, eight-time and reigning WRC champ Ogier.
Ogier, who’s running only a limited campaign this season and isn’t in title contention, benefited from a lower starting position and better road conditions to climb from fifth to first overall after outpacing the entire field by 8.2s while managing his soft-compound Pirelli rubber to perfection.
Wet weather returned for the closing two stages and Ogier soon came unstuck — brushing a tree branch with the rear end of his GR Yaris Rally1, which ripped the upper half of the spoiler from the car.
“Without wings on such a fast stage I did what I could, but it’s not the same,” shrugged the French ace.
That enabled Tanak to crank up the pressure and he stormed back in front with a stage win on the final test as Ogier struggled with reduced rear downforce, ending 6.7s adrift of the lead. Evans’ consistency was rewarded and he swooped into the runner-up spot, trailing the leader by just two-tenths of a second at day’s end. A couple hours later, that would become a 4.8s lead after Tanak was handed his penalty.
Road-opening duties actually worked to WRC champ-in-waiting Rovanpera’s advantage as the Toyota ace avoided the worst of a heavy shower on the penultimate test. Enjoying his last day as a 21-year old (he turns 22 on Saturday’s second leg), the Finn finished Friday just 0.5s behind Ogier in fourth overall — but unless he can overhaul Tanak within the remaining two days, he will not be able to seal the drivers’ title this weekend.
M-Sport Ford’s pair of Puma Rally1 factory entries were initially at the sharp end as Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith locked out the top two spots after Friday morning’s opening stage. But things turned sour on the afternoon’s first stage when Breen retired after sliding down a bank on the same corner which caught out WRC legend Colin McRae in 2002.
Greensmith was left flying the flag for the British squad and he coped admirably to end the day 36.6s back from Rovanpera in fifth.
Neuville’s morning was plagued by two costly spins, but the Hyundai driver’s luck improved as the day wore on. A softer suspension setup heralded more confidence in his i20 N and by close of play the winner of Acropolis Rally Greece three weeks ago had moved to within 1.8s of Greensmith. That became 6.8s with his hybrid boost penalty added, but he remains sixth overall.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, New Zealander Hayden Paddon’s international experience coupled with his local knowledge helped him surge to a lead of over a minute.
The Hyundai driver maintained a blistering pace in varying conditions to the south of Auckland on Friday, picking up four stage wins in his i20 N Rally2 to go with his super special stage victory on Thursday evening in Auckland.
The only other driver to record WRC2 stage wins was Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who claimed two in his Skoda Fabia Evo. The title-chasing Pole struggled to find a rhythm on his maiden New Zealand outing, but still managed to finish the day in second overall, albeit 1m1.5s down on Paddon.
Competitors journey north of rally base Auckland on Saturday for double runs through Kaipara Hills (9.84 miles), Puhoi (13.98 miles) and Komokoriki (3.61 miles). A return to Auckland for service separates the loops, which add up to 54.86 miles.
WRC Rally New Zealand, leading positions after Day One, SS7
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h36m48.8s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +4.8s
3 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +6.5sec
4 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +7.0sec
5 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +43.6s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 50.4s
7 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m28.1s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m41.8s
9 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 N Rally2 – WRC2 leader) +5m06.8s
10 Lorenzo Bertelli/Simone Scattolin (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +5m41.2s
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