ON an extraordinary late-season charge to win his first FIA World Rally Championship (WRC), Toyota driver Ott Tänak took a commanding lead in wet and muddy conditions on Dayinsure Wales Rally GB on Friday.
Although there are still 14 stages of the WRC’s 11thround to complete until Sunday’s finish, Tänak’s 28.8 second lead puts him in the box seat to take his fourth straight win of the season and boost his position in a three-way title fight expected to be decided at Kennards Hire Rally Australia next month.
The Estonian was in third place in the drivers’ standings with barely half the points of then-leader Sébastien Ogier when he launched the bid that has that netted consecutive wins in Finland, Germany and Turkey and lifted him to a close second at the start of this weekend.
On Friday’s first full day of Rally GB competition, the Toyota Yaris driver held off current series leader Thierry Neuville, in a Hyundai i20, in traditionally-tough conditions in the north Wales forests.
He reeled off a hat-trick of stage wins in the morning, building a near-10sec. cushion that allowed for caution in the next two foggy and rain-soaked tests. He won two more in the afternoon when the first three stages were repeated.
Frequent surface changes and inconsistent grip in constantly-changing conditions left drivers struggling for confidence on the predominantly-gravel roads, but improved afternoon weather played into Tänak’s hands.
“It was a really good day,” he said.
“It looks like we’ve made a good step with the car and in the really low-grip conditions we were competitive.”
Local hero Elfyn Evans scored his maiden win in Wales 12 months ago and was Tänak’s closest challenger until an engine misfire stopped his M-Sport Ford Fiesta on the way to the afternoon stages.
Neuville capitalised to take second after a frustrating start. The Belgian’s car would not handle as he wished and he overshot a junction and hit a chicane before set-up changes improved the car and he climbed from fifth.
He headed a quartet of drivers covered by less than 10sec. Jari-Matti Latvala briefly held second in another Yaris, but ended 2.5sec behind Neuville after losing his rhythm in the afternoon’s long Brenig stage.
Esapekka Lappi recovered from an early spin to make it three Yaris cars in the top four. The Finn was 4.6sec adrift of his countryman and 2.3sec clear of Ogier’s M-Sport Fiesta.
Ogier, now third in the championship battle but still in close contention, was third on the Wales stages until first and second gears broke. This combined with two spins relegated the five-time champion to eighth before a late recovery. Craig Breen completed the top six in a Citroën C3.
Hayden Paddon, Mads Østberg, Andreas Mikkelsen and WRC 2 leader Kalle Rovanperä filled the leaderboard, all gaining a place after the last-stage exit of Teemu Suninen.
The young Finn had run as high as fourth and survived two spins, but there was no third time lucky when his Fiesta dived into a ditch after a heavy impact broke the suspension.
Drivers face more than 15 hours at the wheel on Saturday when they journey south to mid-Wales. After a 5.30am start, they tackle five stages, the first four of which are repeated in the afternoon. It adds up to 150.24km of action with no opportunity for service during the day.
Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 15-18 November will be the 13thand final round of the 2018 WRC and also will feature the decider between four contenders for the CAMS Australian Rally Championship.
Tickets are on sale atwww.rallyaustralia.com.au.
Rally Australia is supported by the NSW Government via its tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW.
Outright standings after Friday:
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) 1h06m04.3s
2 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +28.8s
3 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +31.3s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +35.9s
5 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +38.2s
6 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +48.8s
7 Hayden Paddon/Seb Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m06.4s
8 Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m08.4s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m24.3s
10 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Skoda Fabia R5) +3m08.4s