PHOTO: Ott Tänak led at lunchtime service after three stage wins but dropped back with brake and tyre problems in the afternoon M-Sport pic)
SÉBASTIEN Ogier headed a Volkswagen motorsport 1-2-3 after Friday’s opening leg of 72nd Lotos Rally Poland.
The FIA World Rally Championship leader led Andreas Mikkelsen by 2.1sec, with Jari-Matti Latvala a further 8.7sec behind in third. All three are driving Polo R cars.
Temperatures touched an unexpectedly high 30˚C in northern Poland and tyre choice became a crucial factor for the afternoon stages. Many drivers lost time by opting for soft compound rubber, which became worn as the sandy gravel tracks heated up.
Mikkelsen set the early pace before Ott Tänak claimed a hat-trick of stage wins as the rally moved close to Poland’s borders with Russia and Lithuania, building a lead of almost 10sec by lunchtime in his Ford Fiesta RS.
Road opener Ogier, freed from sweeping loose gravel from the tracks when the stages were repeated, won two tests to climb from third to first. The Frenchman was caught out on soft tyres but managed the wear sublimely as others struggled.
“I’m surprised to be leading because it wasn’t a perfect tyre strategy this afternoon. It wasn’t easy to drive the loop on four soft tyres in such heat so I’m happy to bring the car home in front,” said Ogier.
Mikkelsen won the day’s opening stage but a mistake when he slid into a field cost the Norwegian the opportunity to lead overnight. Latvala also scored a win and moved into third when a day that promised so much for Tänak turned to disappointment.
Brake problems frequently left the Estonian Ford Fiesta RS driver with stopping power at the front only. Allied to worn tyres after he made the wrong choice, Tänak dropped valuable seconds to end 16.7sec from the lead.
Kiwi Hayden Paddon was one of the few to opt for hard rubber as the thermometer soared and he rose up the leaderboard to fifth in his Hyundai i20. Paddon struggled for rhythm initially but headed home hero Robert Kubica by 1.5sec.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was 3.9sec further back in seventh and another to rue his tyre decisions, along with Citroën’s Kris Meeke who slipped from fifth to eighth after his DS 3 slithered off the road and into a field.
Dani Sordo struggled to find a rhythm with his pace notes and held ninth, ahead of a lacklustre Mads Østberg, who spent much of the day off the leaderboard and was handed a 10sec penalty for a jump start in the penultimate stage.
All the headline World Rally Car drivers survived the 155.04km of action. Elfyn Evans opted for the wrong tyres, Kevin Abbring had brake issues in his Hyundai i20 and Martin Prokop was unhappy with the handling on his Fiesta RS, but won the final test.
Drivers face eight more stages on Saturday covering 129.29km, including a third pass over the short super special stage next to the rally’s Mikolajki base.