Mārtiņš Sesks has broken clear of Hayden Paddon to lead Rally Poland with just one day to go, as local favorite Miko Marczyk worked his way up to third.
After trading blows on Saturday morning’s three stages, ERC points leader Paddon led Sesks by a scant 1.4 seconds heading into the afternoon.
But in far more rutted, second-pass conditions, 23-year-old Sesks put the hammer down and left Paddon standing.
Neither driver got the better of the other by more than a second on the first pass, but on the second running of Świętajno Sesks found an incredible 7.6s over Paddon to launch into a 6.2s lead.
The MRF Škoda driver kept up the momentum across the rest of the afternoon’s forest stages to add another 1.7s, then 1.6s, to his lead.
Paddon won the superspecial stage to chip 1.3s out of the Latvian’s lead, but Sesks still holds an 8.2s advantage ahead of Sunday’s final leg.
“It was a nice day. Actually we really enjoyed, it was really fast and challenging,” said the rally leader.
“Tomorrow’s going to be even more challenging,” he said.
Former Hyundai WRC driver Paddon finds himself in a situation of déjà vu, as on Rally Islas Canarias two weeks ago he was balancing the desire to fight Yohan Bonato for the rally win with the need to bank strong championship points.
“One eye wants to fight for the rally and the other wants to think about the championship as well,” Paddon confirmed.
“But hey we’re definitely going to keep the pressure on tomorrow, and new stages tomorrow for everyone should make things a bit better for us.”
Following a spin on Saturday’s opening stage, overnight leader Marczyk has been on a fightback drive for the duration of Rally Poland’s second leg.
Heading into the afternoon, the Pole soon made that third after SS5 – a position he would consolidate for the rest of the day. Even if he hadn’t dropped time on SS2, last year’s winner would likely still have been third as he’s struggled to match the pace of Paddon and particularly Sesks.
Josh McErlean had been third after the morning loop, just two seconds clear of Simone Tempestini but both drivers went backwards over the course of the afternoon as 2021 WRC2 champion Mads Østberg went forwards.
Østberg struggled to find the feeling aboard his Citroën C3 Rally2 on the first pass, but stiffening the car up at service seemed to do the trick.
A string of good stage times, including third fastest on SS7, helped him climb from eighth to fifth and he’s closing fast on McErlean’s fourth place too.
The gap between McErlean’s Hyundai and Østberg’s Citroën is just 1.5s heading into Sunday.
Asked if he was going to push tomorrow, Østberg simply replied: “Yes!”
French Gravel champion Mathieu Franceschi is sixth overnight and clearly enjoying himself – drawing some rather fruity comparisons to what driving the Polish stages in his Fabia Rally2 evo feels like.
But he is just 3.3s ahead of fellow Škoda driver Andrea Mabellini who overhauled Mikko Heikkilä on the superspecial as the Finn was slowed by his windshield being covered with water by Marczyk who he was racing side-by-side.
Tempestini dropped all the way down to ninth by the end of the day, however there are just 8.7s separating his Fabia with McErlean’s i20 in fourth..
Erik Cais holds 10th place overnight, 6.5s clear of reigning ERC champion Efrén Llarena who has a comfortable 28.8s in hand over former Škoda factory driver Pontus Tidemand.
Jon Armstrong leads the ERC3 class comfortably overnight on the gravel debut of M-Sport Poland’s Ford Fiesta Rally3 Evo, while in Junior ERC it’s Ola Nore jr who’s in charge by over half a minute.
DirtFish-backed driver Max McRae is seventh out of 16 entrants overnight, suffering an overshoot in the morning and small electrical problems in the afternoon.
Sunday’s leg comprises eight more stages, two loops of four repeated, but they won’t be taken on by last year’s second-place finisher Tom Kristensson.
The Swede elected to retire his Citroën for the weekend, seeing little value in continuing after a torrid Saturday morning where he punctured, lost the function of his gear stick and broke a steering arm in the space of two stages.