Sweden’s Oliver Solberg battled a steering problem to hold a 10.2-second overnight lead on his one-off European Rally Championship appearance on home soil, chased by ERC points leader Hayden Paddon. More than half a minute further back, there is also a very tight battle for third, headed by Frank Tore Larsen.
Solberg’s Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 led by 3.9s after the first loop of stages. Paddon used his Hyundai i20 N Rally2 to take 1.2s out of that on the second pass through Ölme. But Solberg immediately responded by going 3.4s faster on the longer Lungsund despite reporting a problem, which turned out to be with the steering rack, for the last 2-3km.
Solberg continued to manhandle the car through the fast stages to set the best times on the second passes through Ängebäckstorp and the short Mölnbacka and further extend his lead.
“It’s not very fun, I tell you,” he said. “I am shaking because I am pushing like hell and the car is going everywhere. It’s still a very, very long way to go but I don’t want to lose time.”
Paddon, who held a 30-point championship lead over Mārtiņš Sesks coming into the event, was satisfied with his own pace, not willing to risk being drawn into a battle at this stage.
“We’re a little bit in no man’s land,” Paddon admitted. “Obviously we’ve got a good gap behind so we need to manage that. So that’s probably first in mind but obviously I don’t want to let Oliver run away with it either so we’re just trying to keep the pressure on.
“Hey, 10 seconds, anything can happen tomorrow, so we’ll come out fighting tomorrow and see what we can do.”
An incredibly close battle for third position is raging between Larsen, Sesks, Mikko Heikkilä and Nikolay Gryazin, with Lauri Joona also keeping himself in the mix.
Heikkilä nibbled away at Larsen’s advantage throughout the afternoon, and is just 0.1s off the podium position overnight. “It’s super-fun to be in such a tight fight with so many talented drivers, so excited to be here,” said VW Polo driver Larsen, who hasn’t started an ERC event since 2018.
Heikkilä struggled for grip during the morning but setup tweaks to his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo allowed him to up his pace in the afternoon. “We made some changes to the damper clicks, and it was again right direction to go,” he reported. “Now it starts to be quite nice to drive. But unfortunately again we used this first day as a test, so a bit sad about that. Let’s try to push tomorrow.”
Gryazin’s newer Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 is 4.1s behind Heikkilä, with its driver suggesting he was having to force time from the car. He is separated by just 0.1s from Sesks’ similar car.
The Latvian driver, winner of the past two ERC rounds, was another to improve his pace from the morning loop, driving with increased commitment after initially struggling with the character of the Swedish stages. “It’s getting better and better,” he admitted.
Joona, another driver in the earlier Fabia, is 8.1s further back in seventh overall despite a worse road position, but is confident of his chances over the final day’s stages. He said: “I think the start position for tomorrow will be better, so we will push.”
Eighth over night is Mathieu Franceschi (Škoda), 25s down on Joona. The French Gravel champion was another to be driving with increased confidence as the day wore on. He said: “it was a good loop this afternoon for us. This morning was a bit bad – not the best pacenotes, not the best setups, so it’s cool to discover and to learn a lot on this surface because it’s completely new for a Frenchman.”
Škoda duo Filip Mareš and reigning ERC champion Efrén Llarena complete the overnight top 10, both satisfied with their performance in conditions they are unfamiliar with.
It was a difficult day from one of the pre-event favorites as Mads Østberg suffered a suspected engine problem that left his Citroën C3 Rally2 down on power.
“I do have an idea what’s going on but there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “We are doing all we can, to be honest. We’ve had some really good stages. I’m really on the limit and enjoying it but I’ve done a few rallies and let’s say if you’re losing more a second per kilometer something is not normal.”
Irishman Josh McErlean, seventh at midday service in his Hyundai, crashed out of the event on the afternoon’s first stage. “It was quite high-speed rhythm up to it and it was a slowing three-left over crest which caught us out,” he explained. “We slid into the ditch on the right-hand side, which turned into a roll. The car’s not so bad so we’ll try and get going for tomorrow.”