Hyundai’s Craig Breen moved to the top of the leaderboard after a fast-paced Friday on the snow and ice of WRC Rally Sweden, but a fast-finishing Ott Tanak is hot on his heels.
Irishman Breen trailed the man who replaced him at M-Sport Ford for the first half of the day before unleashing an early afternoon attack on the Estonian, establishing control of the FIA World Rally Championship’s only true winter rally as his low starting position offered superior traction on the increasingly rutted second pass through the day’s stages.
Breen outpaced the entire field by 7.8s on the Brattby 2 test to move his i20 N Rally1 into the lead, then extended his buffer to 10.5s with another fastest time on the very next test. But Tanak fought back in his Puma Rally1 as darkness fell, reducing the overnight deficit to just 2.6s.
Breen, who is contesting a part-program with Hyundai this season after a disastrous 2022 campaign with M-Sport, was unperturbed by Tanak’s late charge.
“It’s definitely been one of my strongest days,” said Breen. “Last year I was usually upside down or stuck in a hedge somewhere, so it’s music to my ears to be in the lead tonight. It’s the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and we’re all invited — I can’t wait for tomorrow!”
Although Tanak’s pace represented a significant step up compared with his M-Sport return at last month’s Monte Carlo Rally, the 2019 WRC champ was not overly positive at close of play. He was pushing his Puma to the absolute limit but felt like the stage times didn’t reflect this.
“Result-wise, we can definitely be quite happy,” he said. “It’s much more than we expected coming here. But the thing is that we could be a lot better.”
Esapekka Lappi made it two Hyundais inside the top three with a solid drive on his second rally for the team. A high-speed spin after overshooting a junction on the afternoon’s second stage was the only real error for the Finn, who trails Tanak by just 8.6s heading into Saturday.
A further 15.3s behind in fourth overall was Elfyn Evans, the highest-placed Toyota Gazoo Racing driver. He initially struggled for confidence in his GR Yaris Rally1 on the fast-paced stages, but improved throughout the day, surviving a brush with one of the ubiquitous snowbanks while climbing the leaderboard.
Evans’ ascent was partially aided by the fact that Toyota teammate Takamoto Katsuta rolled on the second pass of Brattby. The Japanese rising star retired shortly afterward with radiator damage, putting an end to what had been a promising start.
Kalle Rovanpera, the rally leader following Thursday night’s short opening stage, dropped down the order after spending the day on road-opening duties. Grip was hard to come by for the reigning WRC champion as he swept a clean line in the loose snow. He trailed teammate Evans by 4.6s at the overnight halt.
Sixth overall wasn’t where an under-the-weather Thierry Neuville had intended to be after the first eight stages, but the Belgian could do no more as he battled with understeer on his Hyundai. Superficial damage to the front and rear aero — inflicted by various run-ins with snowbanks — didn’t help matters.
Pierre-Louis Loubet made some major strides in his M-Sport Puma, gaining confidence with every stage as he got to grips with snow and ice. A top-two time on the afternoon’s first stage was proof of the Frenchman’s development and he arrived back to the Umea service park a respectable seventh overall.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, local star Oliver Solberg laid down the gauntlet on his return to WRC2 on Friday at Rally Sweden, building a 13.0s lead over Finland’s Sami Pajari.
Former Hyundai Rally1 driver Solberg has a point to prove and he went about it the right way on the first full day of his points-scoring 2023 campaign, taking three stage wins in his brand-new Skoda Fabia RS as a number of the other expected front-runners struggled.
Reigning WRC2 champion Emil Lindholm leaked significant time on the morning’s second stage when he was forced to pull over and remove snow from the radiator of his Skoda after plowing into a snowbank, and Teemu Suninen was forced to drive a stage in road mode when his Hyundai i20 Rally2 developed an engine fault.
Lindholm eventually completed a frustrating day in 11th overall, more than two-and-a-half minutes off the pace. Things were not much better for Suninen, who sat just 6.0s ahead of his fellow Finn in 10th.
This left the door open for the battle of the 21-year olds, Solberg and Pajari, both driving Toksport-prepared Skodas. Stepping up to his first full WRC2 campaign, former Junior WRC champ Pajari began the day in fifth, but was up to second by lunchtime, keeping Solberg on his toes for the remainder of the day.
Saturday is the longest day of the rally and features seven stages adding up to 78.43 competitive miles.
WRC Rally Sweden, leading positions after Day One, SS8
1 Craig Breen/James Fulton (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 57m05.5s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2.6s
3 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +11.2s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +26.5s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +31.1s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +36.8s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicolas Gilsoul (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m16.2s
8 Oliver Solberg/ Elliott Edmondson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +2m56.8s
9 Sami Pajari/Enni Malkonen (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +3m09.8s
10 Jari Huttunen/Antti Linnaketo (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2) +3m31.9s
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