Elfyn Evans has begun to make inroads into Ott Tänak’s second place, as Thierry Neuville pulled further clear out front on Ypres Rally Belgium.
Neuville and Tänak had been embroiled in an exciting battle for the lead, Tänak stealing the lead from his Hyundai colleague by just 0.1 seconds after the first stage of Saturday.
But Tänak’s i20 N Rally1 began to develop a transmission problem and that prevented him from being able to challenge Neuville who flew across the rest of the morning.
On SS12 Hollebeke, Tänak simply had no answer to not just Neuville but also Evans’ Toyota, losing 3.7s to Evans to head him by just 5.3s overall.
Asked how much his transmission issue was affecting him, Tänak said: “It affects a lot, I came through as smooth as I can, but we have very inconsistent four-wheel-drive at the moment.
“It’s so disappointing. You can drive it forever but not like a rally car.”
Neuville wasn’t convinced that his team-mate’s transmission problem was as bad as Tänak had been making out.
“I think if he has problems I have only three cylinders, but it’s a nice game and of course we all want to fight for victory,” Neuville said at stage end.
Evans wasn’t happy with his performance on the previous stage but was more familiar with Hollebeke, and that seemed to make the difference.
“Not bad,” Evans surmised. “I’m never happy but yeah not bad.
“New notes and everything there’s always places you can go a bit more, do a bit better, so overall not a bad run.”
Neuville though was peerless, destroying Evans’ benchmark by 6.4s to establish a 16.2s lead over Tänak – despite a wild slide when exiting from a deep cut on a fast corner.
“I had to give it a go, getting a bit better with the car but still not there, I have the feeling like there is more in it but we need to find it,” said Neuville.
Following Craig Breen’s crash on SS10 Dikkebus, Esappeka Lappi has been left in no man’s land with decent gaps both ahead and behind him.
He described his morning as “very clean” but without any real highlights, as he set the fifth best time on SS12.
Adrien Fourmaux moved past Oliver Solberg on the previous stage into what’s now become fifth place following the dramas for both of his M-Sport team-mates Breen and Gus Greensmith who is continuing to nurse a problem after a trip off the road.
And he extended his advantage on the final loop of the morning, outpacing Solberg by 4.4s to lead his rival by 4.5s.
It wasn’t a smooth stage for Solberg, who continued to struggle with the front-end of his Hyundai and had a wild slide after a deep cut at the same place as Neuville.
“There was like a double bump and the rear just went,” he said, “but it’s OK, the car is quite unpredictable to drive it’s really scary sometimes.
“I really struggle in the narrow sections with the understeer,” Solberg added, “I know I’m losing time but I’m doing my best.”
Stéphane Lefebvre continues to lead WRC2 and had been as high as eighth overall due to M-Sport’s tribulations earlier in the morning.
The Citroën C3 Rally2 driver had started SS12 dead level with Toyota Next Generation’s Takamoto Katsuta, who is continuing to fight back after a gearbox problem on Friday.
Unsurprisingly, given he’s in a quicker Rally1 machine, Katsuta has pulled clear of Lefebvre. The former Citroën factory WRC driver’s real battle is rather with the car behind – reigning WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen had been 15.5s down on Lefebvre at the start of the day but a strong morning has pulled him right into contention, just 4.6s down on his rival heading into service.
Yohan Rossel completes the WRC2 podium and overall top 10.