PHOTO: Crowds brave the conditions on Sweet Lamb stage to watch Thierry Neuville leap into third place.
SÉBASTIEN Ogier mastered fog and mud to lead the Dayinsure Wales Rally GB from Estonia’s Ott Tänak after the first day on Friday.
The new World Champion-elect headed Tänak by 37.3sec despite a transmission problem near the end of the final mid-Wales speed test, which restricted the performance of his Volkswagen Polo R.
Ogier suspected a broken driveshaft, the same issue that also delayed teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen, who both lost huge chunks of time as they limped along the muddy gravel forest roads.
“I think the driveshaft is broken so I’m really happy the day is over,” Ogier said at the finish of the final speed test in Dyfnant Forest.
“It’s the front shaft. Jari-Matti and Andreas were unlucky too, but it’s something we need to work on because three cars with the same issue on the same day hasn’t happened before.”
Ogier won five of the eight special stages covering 178.22km, more than half the three-day rally’s competitive distance. As road opener, he enjoyed the best of the conditions, which worsened with the passage of every car and only Tänak offered a challenge.
“It was pretty clear that we had the best road position and we made the most of it, but in truth, the conditions were tricky for everybody and the reversed stages felt like discovering the rally all over again,” the Frenchman said.
“Tomorrow will be another tough day, with more than 100km to cover and no midday service or tyre-fitting zone, so we will need to be on our guard throughout.”
Despite winning two stages, Tänak had troubles of his own, with a puncture, a malfunctioning intercom and dramas with the rear of his Fiesta RS throughout the afternoon loop – although the talented young gun was arguably the star of the day as he defied an unfavourable road position to remain firmly in the hunt.
“I always enjoy this rally. Today was a good day but also a difficult day, with the normal challenges you encounter in Wales added to by a few technical issues that certainly kept us busy,” he said.
“There was a lot of fog on the stages which made it hard to see the end of the bonnet at times, but the car felt good and we have only one approach for tomorrow, which is to keep pushing.”
Thierry Neuville won the final stage to hold third in a Hyundai i20. He was unhappy with his car’s handling initially but made steady progress up the order from eighth to improve his chances of securing the runner-up position in the FIA World Rally Championship.
The Belgian was 31.7sec adrift of Tänak and 3.8sec ahead of teammate Hayden Paddon. The Kiwi drove the final stage with a puncture and regretted changing the set-up of his i20 midway through the day, which adversely affected its handling.
Kris Meeke yielded two places in the final stage to hold fifth in a Citroën DS 3. He was two seconds behind Paddon, but comfortably clear of Dani Sordo’s i20.
Craig Breen was the only major retirement, the Irishman crashing out of sixth during the afternoon.
Saturday’s second leg heads into the Snowdonia Mountains for two loops of stages before returning north to end the day with a short parkland test in England. Drier conditions are expected in the eight tests, which cover 99.81km and will stretch tyre endurance to the limit.
Classification at end of Day One (after 8 of 22 Special Stages)
1. Sébastien Ogier / Julien Ingrassia (FRA/FRA) VW Polo R WRC 1h 44m 31.2s
2. Ott Tänak / Raigo Mõlder (EST/EST) Ford Fiesta RS WRC +37.3s
3. Thierry Neuville / Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL/BEL) Hyundai i20 WRC +1m09.0s
4. Hayden Paddon / John Kennard (NZL/NZL) Hyundai i20 WRC +1m12.8s
5. Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle (GBR/IRL) Citroën DS3 WRC +1m14.8s
6. Dani Sordo / Marc Martí (ESP/ESP) Hyundai i20 WRC +2m07.2s
7. Mads Østberg / Ola Fløene (NOR/NOR) Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2m37.3s
8. Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila (FIN/FIN) VW Polo R WRC +3m43.6s
9. Stéphane Lefebvre / G. De Turckheim (FRA/FRA) Citroën DS3 WRC +4m31.6s
10. Esapekka Lappi / Janne Ferm (FIN/FIN) Skoda Fabia R5 +4m55.0s