OTT Tänak held a narrow lead at Neste Rally Finland on Friday night after a titanic battle with Mads Østberg in which they traded first place four times.
The Toyota driver ended a compelling day on blisteringly fast, sun-kissed roads with a 5.8sec advantage over a rejuvenated Østberg after claiming four special stage wins.
Tänak grabbed the initiative in Thursday night’s prologue and led by 1.1sec at Friday’s mid-leg service, despite the Norwegian briefly edging ahead in his upgraded Citroën C3. Østberg moved back to the front in the afternoon, only for Tänak to regain the advantage again.
Loose gravel on the road surface ensured little grip for the early starters. The Estonian, who was third in the order, shrugged aside that disadvantage as those around him floundered and stuck to a rigid strategy at a rally on his Toyota Gazoo Racing team’s doorstep.
The leaderboard will be reversed to create Saturday’s start order, creating a more even playing field and Tänak said: “Tomorrow is a fair fight so we’ll push hard. Today, it was very important to get a good position for tomorrow. There have been six cars between us and that’s a big difference in conditions.”
Østberg relished his upgraded Citroën C3, which delivered improved handling, and won three stages. High tyre wear forced him to throttle back as the afternoon progressed.
“We did not lose a lot of time which is good because in the end it was all about getting through the afternoon,” he explained.
It was a tough day for championship leader Thierry Neuville and closest title rival Sébastien Ogier. As the first two starters, both struggled for grip and what was already a difficult challenge for Neuville became worse when he missed a junction and his Hyundai i20 swiped a tree. He ended 10th.
Ogier limited his losses in a Ford Fiesta. The Frenchman ended sixth, almost a minute clear of Neuville, in his quest to close a 27-point difference in the championship standings.
Jari-Matti Latvala was third, 17.3sec behind Østberg after a consistent day in his Yaris. The Finn, three times a winner of the rally, ended 13.3sec clear of Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon.
Paddon and Teemu Suninen swapped places on several occasions but the Finnish youngster fell back in the final stage with brake problems in his Fiesta.
Saturday’s leg is the longest of the event. Competitors face almost 16 hours at the wheel as they tackle 142.86 competitive kilometres spread over eight stages around the town of Jämsa to the south of Jyväskylä. These include Pihlajakoski – the only stage unchanged from 2017 – and Kakaristo, a new stage that includes sections from the famous Ouninpohja test.
Outright standings after Friday:
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) 1h04m14.9s
2 Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +5.8s
3 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +23.1s
4 Hayden Paddon/Seb Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +36.4s
5 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +46.1s
6 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +58.9s
7 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m01.1s
8 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m01.4s
9 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m34.1s
10 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m57.7s