Craig Breen leads a round of the World Rally Championship overnight for the first time in his career as he usurped Hyundai team-mate Ott Tänak on the final Friday test of Rally Finland.
Oittila – the only stage to be run just once this weekend – took place under the cover of darkness. Toyota did some of its pre-event testing in the dark but Hyundai didn’t, and that potentially had an effect on SS6.
Breen however was the happiest man at the end of the test, overturning a 1.5-second deficit to Tänak into a 2.8s advantage at the head of the pack as he set the third-fastest time, albeit 3.7s down on Elfyn Evans’ stunning stage-winning effort.
“Amazing,” said Breen, summing up his day. “Always questioned just what Finland would be like in the dark, now we felt it.
“Phwoar, absolutely incredible. My lights were not 100% to be honest, I have some work to do with them, but really incredible.”
Tänak had led the rally since the first of the forest stages and is still firmly in the hunt. He’s surprised to be battling – and beating – the Toyotas on pure pace, as Hyundai has never scored a podium on Rally Finland before.
Speaking before knowing he’d been dumped to second place, Tänak said: “It’s surprisingly good, we never expected to be in the battle with Toyota. Tomorrow is a big day.”
Evans beat Esapekka Lappi’s similar Toyota Yaris WRC to reclaim third position from Kalle Rovanperä, who slid down to fifth place.
Lappi had looked poised to beat Evans to the stage win and therefore third position too, but a wild moment right at the end of the stage where his Toyota was sucked into a ditch briefly could well have cost him the vital tenths.
“We did what we could in the darkness, but the time is s***,” Lappi said, unexpectedly. “But good day overall.”
Lappi is just 0.6s behind Evans in fourth overall and 1.2s up on Rovanperä, meaning just 7.9s separates the top five cars heading into Saturday.
Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier have failed to get involved in that battle. Sixth-placed Neuville is a hefty 23.4s down on Rovanperä – 31.3s shy of the lead – with 2.3s in hand over Ogier.
Neuville’s advantage over Ogier was far greater than that before SS6 but a difficult stage where he felt he “just couldn’t commit to it, the visibility was quite poor” closed it up.
Ogier meanwhile struggled as first car on the road more than he hoped, but had more light than his rivals on SS6, and was led to concede: “It hasn’t been a very strong day for us, we didn’t have any pace.”
Takamoto Katsuta won the opening stage but a wild spin on SS2 dropped him down the order. He ended Friday in eighth, 13.3s behind Ogier.
Gus Greensmith is the highest placed M-Sport Ford driver but is already 1m20.6s adrift of Breen’s rally lead.
Instead, his focus will now be to fend off team-mate Adrien Fourmaux who is 28.3s behind. Fourmaux found the night stage a challenge though, despite advice from Michele Mouton, commenting: “It was such an experience, wow!”
Mads Østberg felt he could smell fire in his Citroën C3 Rally2 on SS6, which led to him checking his mirrors a lot on the stage, no doubt compromising his rhythm.
That was exactly what he didn’t need as the reigning WRC2 Champion only had a 1.6s advantage over Nikolay Gryazin before the test.
However it’s Teemu Suninen that leads WRC2 overnight with a storming run through the dark, 10.4s faster than Østberg’s effort. He therefore leads by 8.2s with Gryazin a further 5.5s adrift.
“It’s been a pretty good day,” said Suninen, who is driving a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 for the first time after over four years competing for M-Sport.
“It’s a really different car to drive but I’m getting used to it step by step and I’ve been enjoying a lot.”
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 10m21.5s
2 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota) +1.6s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +3.7s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +4.8s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +6.3s
6 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +8.0s
Leading positions after SS6
1 Breen/Nagle (Hyundai) 43m51.3s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +2.8s
3 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +6.1s
4 Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) +6.7s
5 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +7.9s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +31.3s
7 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +33.6s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +46.9s
9 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m20.6s
10 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +1m48.9s