Ott Tänak returned to stage-winning form on Arctic Rally Finland as he edged Elfyn Evans by a tenth of a second on the final stage of Saturday morning to lead the rally at the halfway point.
Tänak won every stage prior to SS4 but slumped to just the eighth-fastest time there as Evans set the pace, but the Hyundai driver was back on it on Siikakämä to extend his lead to 23.6 seconds over Kalle Rovanperä, after beating the Finn by 2.4s on SS5.
“We did some changes before and the car was behaving actually very nice,” said Tänak.
“And the stage as well is a lot of fun, it’s one of the best.”
Rovanperä survived what he called “a small moment” when his Yaris WRC slid out of the line on a fast right-hander and smacked a snowbank. He recovered and bounced back onto the stage, escaping with just some minor damage to the rear-left of his car.
“We need to improve a lot,” Rovanperä said.
“On the fast stages we are fast but on the technical sections we need to find some speed.”
Despite feeling far from content, the 20-year-old extended his advantage over Craig Breen in second spot on Siikakämä, beating the Hyundai driver by 4.1s to head him by 5.3s ahead of the repeat afternoon loop.
Evans has taken another chunk out of Thierry Neuville’s advantage in fourth place – the gap now down to just 2.6s between the pair.
Neuville had eked his cushion up to 12.5s after SS3 on Saturday morning but was resoundingly beaten by Evans on SS4 and SS5 as he struggled to fully comprehend everything co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe was telling him on the duo’s second WRC event in the car.
“I struggle to clearly understand sometimes the notes,” Neuville explained.
“Anyhow I tried to be very focused. We did the best out of what we could this morning.”
Evans – who won SS4 – was again rapid on the final stage of the Saturday morning loop despite feeling none of the stage gave him confidence in his Toyota.
Sébastien Ogier remains down in eighth spot but has designs on sixth place; lying just 2.9s shy of the position.
However, the seven-time world champion is struggling to overhaul current incumbent and World Rally Car debutant Oliver Solberg, who lost just 0.8s to Ogier on SS5.
“It was a proper stage that, it was the best stage today,” said Solberg of the Siikakämä test.
“The time is not bad so I’m happy.”
Ogier, who tackled Saturday morning’s stages as fifth car on the road as opposed to first like he was on Friday, said: “Better than yesterday but for sure everything we lost yesterday is impossible to catch, that’s the difficulty for us.
“I gave everything I have.”
Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta splits Solberg and Ogier overall, sliding down from sixth to seventh as he lost 4.7s to Ogier’s fellow Yaris WRC.
It means Katsuta sits 1.1s adrift of Solberg but 1.8s ahead of Ogier after a stage he admitted he liked but “I didn’t like my driving” on it.
M-Sport pair Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith are propping up the top 10 in ninth and 10th place respectively.
Suninen was 0.7s quicker than Greensmith on SS5 but is now 19.6s shy of Ogier overall, having started the day in the thick of the battle for sixth spot.
“My job is to do a good job here and push the car to the limits, and I’m really trying to do it,” said Suninen, after dropping 15.7s to Ogier on stage.
His team-mate Greensmith is 41.2s further back overall although he felt he “couldn’t seem to find a rhythm” on what he described as his “worst stage of the day”.
Esapekka Lappi preserved his unbeaten record in WRC2 this weekend, taking a fifth stage win from five – by a startling 11.1s – in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
He now heads Andreas Mikkelsen by 33.1s who seems resigned to second place in the Arctic Circle.
“It seems to be when there are a lot of corners you have to brake a little bit more, I think there he is gaining a little bit because I have to use the handbrake to get the rear out,” Mikkelsen said, comparing his performance to Lappi.
“If I push more I’ll be really on the limit and I’m already on the limit. I don’t have so much more to give.”
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 12m30.1s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +0.1s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +1.1s
4 Oliver Solberg/Seb Marshall (Hyundai) +1.9s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2.4s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +5.5s
Leading positions after SS5
1 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) 1h07m28s
2 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +23.6s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +28.9s
4 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +34.7s
5 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +37.3s
6 Solberg/Marshall (Hyundai) +51.3s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +52.4s
8 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +54.2s
9 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +1m10.9s
10 Gus Greensmith/Elliott Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +1m52.1s