WRC title rivals Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier were separated by 0.3 seconds for the lead of Rally Turkey after a gripping and surprising opening leg on Friday.
PHOTO: Thierry Neuville leads in Turkey by 0.3 sec. (Jaanus Ree/Red Bull pic)
Championship leader Neuville held the edge in his Hyundai i20 over world champion Ogier’s Ford Fiesta after a gruelling day on dusty rock-strewn tracks near Marmaris on the Turkish Riviera.
That either was at the head of the leaderboard was a major shock given the handicap of starting first and second in the running order. Deep sand and gravel covered the roads, which both swept clean to leave more grip and a faster line for those behind.
Belgian Neuville labelled his start position a ‘disaster’ but was inside the top six all day. He won two of the six special stages and took the lead in the final kilometres when long-time leader and teammate Andreas Mikkelsen lost vital seconds due to worn tyres.
He overshot a bend in the last special stage but held off a determined Ogier.
“We’re involved in a fantastic fight for the leading positions which is a great way to start this new event,” Neuville said.
“The conditions we faced today were really tough. These roads have been a completely different challenge to any other we’ve faced this season.”
Like most, Ogier was hampered by hanging dust in the morning’s opening Çetibeli stage. He soared from seventh to second with a crushing performance to win this afternoon’s repeat, the longest test of the rally and one regarded as the toughest of the season.
Mikkelsen was 2.3sec behind Ogier. He led after Thursday night’s short curtain-raiser in the streets of Marmaris and regained top spot after losing it for two stages, before abrasive roads and temperatures exceeding 30°C took their toll on his tyres.
Jari-Matti Latvala struggled for grip in the rougher sections in his Toyota Yaris, but held fourth and was well in touch at 16.3sec off the lead.
Teammate Ott Tänak complained of similar traction problems but climbed from ninth to fifth in the final two stages. He had 3.2sec in hand over Kiwi Haydon Paddon and Finn Esapekka Lappi in a third Yaris.
Craig Breen led for two stages in his Citroën C3 in the morning but a flat tyre relegated the distraught Irishman to eighth. Teemu Suninen, driving a Fiesta, and Henning Solberg’s Skoda Fabia completed the leaderboard.
Elfyn Evans and Mads Østberg both retired in the penultimate stage with broken suspension. Evans lost time earlier with a differential oil leak in his Fiesta while Østberg’s demise ruined a strong performance which delivered third place during the morning.
Saturday’s leg follows a similar format of two identical loops of three stages, split by service. The roads are smoother than Friday’s and include stunning picture-postcard views of the coastline west of Marmaris. The six stages cover 130.62km.
Outright standings after Friday:
1 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 1h52m28.2s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +0.3s
3 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2.6s
4 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +16.3s
5 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +31.9s
6 Hayden Paddon/Seb Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +35.1s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +36.8s
8 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +50.1s
9 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m02.9s
10 Henning Solberg/Ilka Minor (Skoda Fabia R5) +6m52.0s