Elfyn Evans added another tenth to his Monza Rally lead to end the first day of the World Rally Championship season finale 1.4 seconds ahead of title rival Sébastien Ogier.
Evans is chasing down a 17-point deficit to points leader Ogier so is reliant on Ogier slipping further down the leaderboard if he wants to become World Rally Champion for the very first time.
But Evans did all he could on day one, performing particularly well in the afternoon when the rally headed back from the Bergamo mountain tests to the Monza race circuit.
“It’s been a good day round the track really so I’m quite happy with that but got some work to do for the mountain stages tomorrow,” he said.
Despite trailing his Toyota team-mate, Ogier also declared himself “happy with his day” as second spot will be more than enough for him to scoop an eighth world championship title.
Thierry Neuville rounded out the podium after Friday’s seven stages, 21.6s down on rally leader Evans.
It’s been an intriguing day for Neuville, who had a good feeling with the car but it wasn’t producing the times he craved. He called that “very strange” and said “that makes it very difficult to improve for tomorrow”.
His SS7 Grand Prix time was strong though; level with Ogier and therefore just 0.1s shy of Evans’ effort.
However Evans wasn’t quickest on Friday’s final test as Dani Sordo blitzed the Grand Prix stage, going some 2.2s quicker than second-fastest Takamoto Katsuta and 3.6s faster than Evans.
“We did a small change in the direction [towards where] my car was in Catalunya and already when I finish the stage I said there’s more precision, I was looking all day for that,” said Sordo.
“It was a small change but a big change.”
Sordo’s strong stage time moved him to just three seconds behind Hyundai stablemate Neuville in fourth place overall.
Katsuta, who was sixth at the loop’s conclusion, was equally pleased to end his day with strong speed, saying: “[At the] end of the day it’s good to have some good stage time.
“In the dark always it’s not so easy. I’ll try to improve tomorrow morning in the mountain stages, I had a not so good feeling this morning, but everything’s going well.”
Oliver Solberg split Sordo and Katsuta on the leaderboard at the end of day one after a quietly impressive day in his 2C Competition Hyundai.
“It’s been a very strong day [but] this stage was not good,” said Solberg. “I braked too early for the chicanes I don’t think I heated [up] the tires enough.”
Gus Greensmith, Teemu Suninen and Kalle Rovanperä round out the World Rally Car runners in seventh, eighth and ninth places overall.
WRC3 leader Yohan Rossel holds the final points-scoring position in 10th, a mere 2.9s ahead of title rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz.
Rossel (pictured below) was hoping to start the Monza Rally as the WRC3 champion but lost an appeal against his Acropolis Rally disqualification back in September, so he has to win the event in class to take the championship – as does Kajetanowicz.
Marco Bulacia leads the WRC2 category by just 5.3s overnight ahead of Jari Huttunen, who has switched from Hyundai to M-Sport this weekend.
This year’s champion Andreas Mikkelsen had been ahead of both before a puncture on SS6 dropped him backwards.
Nikolay Gryazin is ineligible to score drivers’ points in WRC2 but can compete for team honors, and he was leading the class before clipping a concrete barrier in a chicane and going head-on into a haybale.
That did significant damage to the rear-right and the front end of Gryazin’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo but the Toksport team did a fantastic job to get the car in shape for SS7.
Gryazin said he was “so shocked and impressed” by the mechanics’ effort to repair the car in just 15 minutes but was keen to learn how to attack the circuit stages having missed the rally last year.
“I will try not to repeat any stupid mistakes, I’m not an expert of driving these Mickey Mouse stages but it’s time to train,” he said.
1 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) 5m18.7s
2 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +2.2s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +3.6s
4= Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +3.7s
4= Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +3.7s
6 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +5.4s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Evans/Martin 1h04m05.2s
2 Ogier/Ingrassia +1.4s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +21.6s
4 Sordo/Carrera +24.6s
5 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +50.6s
6 Katsuta/Johnston +1m05.5s
7 Greensmith/Andersson +1m14.1s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai) +1m28.6s
9 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Haltunnen (Toyota) +1m57.3s
10 Yohan Rossel/Jacques-Julien Renucci (Citroën) +4m21.3s