Gus Greensmith has got the better of M-Sport team-mate Adrien Fourmaux and deposed him of fifth position as Thierry Neuville won the powerstage dress rehearsal.
Greensmith, who started Sunday 6.4 seconds adrift of fifth, lost 0.5s to his team-mate on Sunday morning’s opening stage but has harassed him ever since; his pressure eventually telling on Fafe as he went 7.6s faster than him.
“In there, bloody hell it’s so slippy I felt like I was stopping the car in places and it just didn’t feel like I could carry the speed,” he said.
“But yeah everything’s nice and calm, relaxed. No issues.”
Fourmaux, who has famous stages he’s driven on one side of his helmet and stages he wants to drive on the other, has ticked a box in completing the Fafe test. However, he almost joined the list of drivers to get it wrong over the jump as he kissed the banking on landing at the famous jump.
“It’s really nice to drive this stage but honestly I’m struggling with my tires today,” he said.
“We tried something different and I think it doesn’t work but the knowledge of the stage from the other drivers doesn’t help us also.”
Out front, Toyota’s Elfyn Evans managed to extend his lead over Hyundai’s Dani Sordo by another 0.3s to hold a 22s advantage with just two stages to go.
“It was a fairly interesting stage that first one this morning but things are working quite OK so happy enough,” Evans said of his day so far.
Asked how his tires were, Evans laughed: “They’re on! So all OK.”
Sordo meanwhile seems to have conceded defeat: “The car is moving a lot from the rear, it’s so difficult to drive with no rear grip at the end. We’ll keep trying, you never know but Evans is faster so it’s like this.”
Neuville has been on a relaxed Sunday morning drive but picked up the pace on Fafe as this is the test that will be used as the powerstage in a few hours’ time.
However the Hyundai driver caused a surprise when he started the stage five minutes earlier than was scheduled, and therefore eight minutes before the next car – Kalle Rovanperä – began.
Asked why that was, Neuville replied: “I don’t know, I started when I had the green light.
“But yeah it was a high speed recce [for the powerstage] but a lot of cleaning for the first pass, so it should be better for the second pass.”
His speed was impressive though on the first pass as he won the stage by a healthy 4.5s over team-mate Ott Tänak who is also way out of top 10 contention.
Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier and Takamoto Katsuta are both comfortable in third and fourth position respectively.
Ogier went 4.6s quicker than Katsuta on Fafe but will be hoping for something more emphatic later on on the powerstage. As it stands, Ogier is set to draw level with team-mate and rally leader Evans at the top of the championship after this round before powerstage points are added to the equation.
“We are saving the tires so we’ll see when it comes to the powerstage,” Ogier said. “It’s always the target to take as much points as we can.”
Kalle Rovanperä was a full 18s slower than Neuville on SS18, reversing the time differentials from the rest of the morning where the Toyota was quickest, and confessed “I was not pushing so hard”.
“It’s going to be a tricky powerstage,” he added. “We didn’t really prepare this loop only for the powerstage. I will try my best but I think it’s going to be difficult.”
Tänak has focused his entire day, like Neuville, on bidding for maximum powerstage points.
Asked how he found his run on SS18, he said: “Hopefully we can enjoy next time.”
Esapekka Lappi is an untroubled seventh overall and leading the WRC2 class in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, well over a minute clear of second-placed Teemu Suninen.
The chasing M-Sport driver used two hard tires on his car and admitted “it’s not the condition for this but we do what we have to do,” alluding to a lack of available soft tires.
While the top two in class looks secure, the battle for third is well and truly alive between Mads Østberg and Nikolay Gryazin.
Østberg confessed he didn’t feel comfortable in his Citroën but the reigning WRC2 Champion managed to steal 8.7s from Gryazin to turn the tides against the Polo R5 driver who had been quicker earlier in the morning.
The pair are split by 20.4s in ninth and 10th overall; third and fourth in WRC2.
Oliver Solberg is fifth and said “it’s a bit boring at the moment” as he takes it easy in his Hyundai.
“There’s no point to push anymore,” he said, “I can’t keep up anyway.”
He’s currently fifth in class, 18.1s in arrears of Gryazin.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martin Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 6m39.2s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +4.5s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +6.7s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +6.9s
5 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai) +7.0s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +9.8s
Leading positions after SS18
1 Evans/Martin 3h25m44.7s
2 Sordo/Rozada +22.0s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m22.3s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +1m54.5s
5 Greensmith/Patterson +4m43.8s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) + 4m50.5s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Volkswagen) +9m09.0s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +10m38.1s
9 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +11m29.8s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Volkswagen) +11m50.2s