Ott Tänak shared a stage win with Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville on the first Ypres Rally Belgium stage after service, trimming Elfyn Evans’ rally lead to 1.1 seconds.
A pulsating battle is developing between all three, with Neuville a touch further back following an overshoot on the first pass of the Vleteren test.
But there were no such dramas on the second time throufh as Neuville jointly set the pace with Tänak to lie 7.6s off the lead as Friday afternoon’s loop begins.
Evans wasn’t too disheartened to have dropped time to the two Hyundai drivers, describing his stage as “maybe not as clinical as we would like but no mistakes”.
Rain remains a threat for the afternoon, but there was no sign of it for the Rally1 runners on SS5. All three of the drivers provisionally holding the rostrum spots played it safe with two softs, two hards and two wet tires in their package – but others were braver.
Takamoto Katsuta gambled with four wet compound tires and was therefore off the pace on Vleteren 2, but is hoping his decision will repay itself.
“Yeah, yeah that’s a plan, we’re just waiting for big rain and I can gain,” said Katsuta, who is outside the top 10 following a gearbox problem in the morning. “But yeah it was slippy with rain tire on dry condition.”
Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen were both forced to run one wet Pirelli on SS5 due to their loop selection, with Lappi commenting it created “some nice slides, for sure”.
He was 2.3s up on Breen through the stage and extends his advantage over the fifth-placed M-Sport driver to 6.5s.
“To be fair our weather guys were spot on this morning, so hopefully it comes,” said Breen of the rain.
“We’re thinking in the next hour it’ll be full wet so if it arrives we’ll be in the game, if not it could be a long old afternoon.”
Team-mate Adrien Fourmaux had led the M-Sport Ford charge after three stages before he was caught in a downpour on SS4 and plummeted from fourth to eighth.
He struggled to make any inroads on the first stage of the afternoon’s set, losing 1.9s to Oliver Solberg and 0.4s to Gus Greensmith. Therefore Greensmith remains sixth, with Solberg 5.8s up on Fourmaux in seventh.
“The motivation is the rally is not finished, there are a lot of stages to do but for sure the pollution on the road is quite bad it’s easy to do a mistake,” Fourmaux said.
Solberg commented: “We changed some things in service now to the rear which made things better, but it’s tricky conditions – easy to do a mistake.”