Hayden Paddon and Mārtiņš Sesks are split by just 1.4 seconds after the first full morning of round three of the European Rally Championship, Rally Poland.
Paddon, who has twice finished on the Rally Poland podium when it was a round of the World Rally Championship, set a blistering pace on the opening Świętajno test, beating everyone else ahead of him on the road by a massive 10.3s.
But then Sesks came along.
The Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 driver lowered Paddon’s benchmark time by another 3.2s to storm from a position of 22nd overnight into second place, just 0.2s down on the lead.
That lead had been held by Polish driver Miko Marczyk who was fastest on both Friday’s qualifying stage and the superspecial, but last year’s winner lost over 20s on Saturday’s opening forest test.
The WRC2 driver suffered a spin, choosing to bring the car to a stop as he noticed there was a ditch on the outside of the corner. But trouble restarting his Fabia RS Rally2 robbed him of crucial seconds and dumped him down to 11th place overall.
The fightback began in earnest though as Marczyk immediately climbed back to fifth by the end of the morning.
Paddon and Sesks could barely be split over the remainder of the loop but it was Paddon who was quickest on both stages – edging Sesks by a second on SS3 to grow his lead to 1.2s and then by another 0.2s on SS4 to lead by 1.4s.
“I just enjoyed this morning,” Paddon said, “obviously this afternoon’s a different rally as it’s about looking after the car. But so far so good.”
Sesks added: “The good thing is I know where we lost and where we can do better, so OK. We just lay our heads down and focus on the next loop.”
Already the leading pair are over 20s up the road from anyone else, but Hyundai junior driver Josh McErlean has established himself as best of the rest to hold third overall heading into service – overhauling Simone Tempestini on the last stage of the loop.
Tempestini trails by two seconds, just 0.7s clear of the recovering Marczyk.
Mikko Heikkilä is an early sixth overall – a touch disappointed to be 28.7s down on the lead already – but 2.8s ahead of Mathieu Franceschi who, in turn, is just 0.1s clear of Mads Østberg.
Østberg was looking to bounce back from a difficult Rally Islas Canarias in Poland, but it hasn’t clicked together for him this weekend either.
Struggling to find “a good feeling” in his Citroën “which is a bit strange”, the Norwegian is already 31.6s down on the leader – and to add insult to injury he was handed a €500 fine for removing his gloves between the flying finish and the stop-line.
“I’m an old dog so it’s difficult to teach me a new rule, I think!” Østberg said of his fine.
“I’ve done the same in 20 years and I just forgot to be honest. At least I had my gloves on for the stage! I don’t think it’s a safety issue to be fair but I respect the rules.”
Andrea Mabellini and reigning ERC champion Efrén Llarena are ninth and 10th.
Filip Mareš had been just 0.1s off the top 10 after two of Friday’s stages, but rolled his Škoda on the exit of a square-left junction, having approached with too much speed.
The roll cost him around half a minute as spectators were quick to flock to his aid and roll the Fabia back onto its wheels.
“In one moment I thought we would do it without a roll, and then I rolled. Then I hit a haybale towards the end, so it was not my stage,” Mareš explained.
“Maybe I was enjoying too much! Hopefully there are no damages on the car that will cause us to retire from the race.”
Tom Kristensson had been tipped to succeed this weekend given he’s the reigning Polish champion and was second on Rally Poland last year in a Hyundai.
But driving a Citroën this year, Kristensson ran into very early problems as the sequential gear shifter aboard his C3 Rally2 failed on Friday’s first stage.
The 2020 Junior WRC champion lost over three minutes as he grappled with the issue – his gear shifter unusually rotating backwards and forwards in the car upon acceleration and deceleration.
He and co-driver Andreas Johansson managed to fix the problem between stage two and three, but were forced out completely just a couple of miles onto the Markowskie stage as taking a cut, Kristensson’s C3 found a rock which immediately broke the front-right steering arm.
Unable to steer the car, Kristensson parked up and retired.
Andrea Nucita was another retirement as he holed his radiator against a chicane on the final stage of the morning.
The Italian had been 17th overall.