Craig Breen laid down a marker for his World Rally Championship rivals by extending his Rally Finland lead over Ott Tänak, but it was Elfyn Evans who was quickest on Saturday’s opener.
Just 7.9s seconds covered the leading five cars after the first day of Rally Finland, with 1.5s separating overnight leader Breen and his team-mate Ott Tänak.
But Breen pulled 1.2s out of Tänak on the 11.29-mile Kakaristo-Hassi stage to increase his lead by 2.7s overall. Evans was quicker by 0.2s to win his second stage in a row, shifting himself into the battle for victory with a 5.9s deficit to the lead.
“It felt pretty good in places, not perfect everywhere though,” said the stage winner. “But generally the feeling is even better than yesterday, so not bad.”
Rally leader Breen, despite managing to extend his lead, felt he left “five to eight seconds” worth of time on the stage.
“I left so much time in there honestly,” he said. “Just dopey hesitation where you just need to put the balls on the dash and keep going.
“[But] it was a nice one. I really, really enjoyed it. The race is on.”
Tänak sounded a little resigned at the stage end, saying: “[I was] on my maximum I would say. If it’s not full confidence then you can’t go fully limit but it is like it is.
“I will continue pushing for sure so let’s see how it ends up.”
Kalle Rovanperä and Esapekka Lappi drifted out of contention a touch on SS6, losing 4.6s and 7.4s respectively to Evans on the stage. That allowed Rovanperä to shuffle past Lappi into fourth by 1.6s, but he ended the stage 12.3s down on the lead and aware he’s “not fast enough”.
“I’m not fully happy with the car and myself also,” he said.
“I just cannot be so fast, there is not much we can do now. I just try to get it better but I cannot do much more.”
Lappi added: “I tried my best, that’s all. It’s just too slippery to push harder for me. I had no confidence to push harder.”
Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier are in a battle for sixth, over 20s down on the quintet in front but themselves separated by just 2.3s at the start of the day.
Ogier, now relieved of road sweeping duties in his Toyota, was however well beaten by Neuville on Saturday morning’s opener, dropping 5.8s to his rival to trail by 8.1s overall.
Neuville’s time was a strong one though, as he beat both Rovanperä and Lappi, dropping just 3.2s to Evans’ benchmark.
Adrien Fourmaux opened the road for all of his rivals on Saturday and was slowest of the World Rally Cars on SS7.
M-Sport team-mate Gus Greensmith beat him by 5.7s to hold a 34-second advantage in ninth. Takamoto Katsuta’s Toyota is a further 39.7s up the road in eighth, having gone six seconds faster on SS7.
“The grip level is easier than yesterday but more challenging because of the stage,” Katsuta assessed.
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 8m34.5s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +0.2s
3 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +1.4s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +3.2s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +4.6s
6 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota) +7.4s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Breen/Nagle (Hyundai) 52m26s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +4s
3 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +5.9s
4 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +12.3s
5 Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) +13.9s
6 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +34.3s
7 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +42.4s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +1m02.8s
9 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m42.5s
10 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +2m16.5s