Sébastien Loeb has moved into the lead of Acropolis Rally Greece, as both Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville in particular were left extremely frustrated by hanging dust on the opening gravel stage of the event.
Uniquely for a World Rally Championship Friday, Loutraki is the only stage that will be repeated later on in the day.
That puts championship leader Kalle Rovanperä in a precarious position, sweeping the loose gravel clear on five individual stages across the day.
“Not good,” he confirmed. “For sure being first on the road on these roads is not easy, really low grip and our car’s grip is not good either, so not the best combination but I do my best.”
But Rovanperä’s grip advantage was offset by hanging pockets of dust that obscured visibility for everybody behind him.
Tänak may have beaten Rovanperä by 1.3 seconds, but likely would’ve been far quicker had the gap between cars been greater than three minutes.
“It’s funny from the FIA’s side that it happens again and again, and nobody cares,” he fumed. “Challenging.”
Elfyn Evans, perhaps expectedly, was less animated, commenting: “The dust is difficult, difficult with the rhythm and everything. Yeah OK.”
But like his team-mate, Neuville was seething: “You have no visibility. Full fifth gear, full flat out, suddenly you see nothing and you don’t know where you are, it’s quite like you are dying. It’s unbelievable.
“We asked for more minutes between the cars, we knew the sun was low, we knew there was hanging dust, we knew there was no wind and nobody gives a s***.”
Neuville lost 1.7s to Tänak and therefore trails by 0.6s overall, but that felt like the last thing on his conscious.
The rally organizer listened to their complaints though, as for SS3 Harvati there will be four minutes between each competing Rally1 car.
Loeb, the most experienced driver on the entry list, rose above the issues though – setting the fastest time to lead the rally by 1.1s
“It was a good stage but really not easy,” confessed the nine-time champion.
“The sun, the dust and very slippy in some places. The brakes were maybe overheating a bit but no big problem at all.”
Rovanperä is tucked in fifth place, one second down on Neuville.
Pierre-Louis Loubet is one spot ahead after setting a storming pace on SS2, going fastest on most of the splits before eventually ceding 0.8s to stage winner Loeb.
Loubet was the last Rally1 car on the road, but it was still a brilliant start and an eye-catching performance.
“It’s good,” he said.
Dani Sordo said he went off the road a little bit on a Tarmac section of SS2, describing his run as “quite bad”. The Hyundai driver was ninth fastest, settling into sixth overall behind Craig Breen who had a “handy enough rhythm” on the test.
Esapekka Lappi was seven tenths quicker than Sordo but following a skirmish with the barriers on Thursday’s superspecial, he’s one tenth behind overall.
Toyota team-mate Evans is another 0.9s back in an uncharacteristic ninth.
Takamoto Katsuta is an Acropolis rookie and it perhaps showed on SS2, the Toyota Next Generation driver some 25.7s off the pace on Loutraki – a massive 18.6s slower than the next slowest car Gus Greensmith.
But at least he may know where the time loss was, as Katsuta felt his “pacenotes are really s***”.
Andreas Mikkelsen did get going after his embarrassing crash just seconds into the Acropolis Rally on Thursday night’s superspecial in the Olympic Stadium.
Toksport managed to fix Mikkelsen’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo for Friday’s action overnight but it’s the last thing he needed for his WRC2 title hopes.
“We lost 10 minutes, it’s the worst start we could have had – we made a mistake, my mistake,” Mikkelsen said.
“We will not give up, this rally is a rally where a lot of things can happen so we just have to continue.”
Mikkelsen was the quickest WRC2 car on the stage though – much to the ire of rival Yohan Rossel.
“He had three minutes in front of the other car, and we had two. It’s impossible to see and to drive, it’s crazy,” said Rossel.