Thierry Neuville will carry just a 0.7-second lead over Elfyn Evans into the second day of Rally Spain, having completed a clean sweep of stage wins across the afternoon loop.
Evans had dominated the morning batch of three stages, holding a 7.9s advantage over Neuville heading for service, but the Toyota driver surrendered the lead to his Hyundai rival with a wild moment at the start of SS5.
It was ill timed from Evans as it was just when Neuville was hitting his stride, smashing everyone by 7.9s to move into a 0.3s lead.
Neuville duly edged Evans by 0.4s on the final stage of the day to hold his slender lead heading into Saturday.
“Let’s say I’m feeling more and more comfortable in the car and looking forward to tomorrow,” Neuville reflected.
“Today on those twisty stages I could be so much faster but we couldn’t get the turn in, so we need to work on that.
“But tomorrow is a different profile, a bit more flowing and hopefully it should suit us a little bit better.”
Evans was left to rue what hasn’t “been the best afternoon, especially in the more dirty parts” but he’s consistently got the better of team-mate Sébastien Ogier all day, which is vital in his bid to wrest the world title from Ogier’s grasp.
Ogier has had to settle into the role of ‘best of the rest’ ending Friday an alarming 19.4s adrift of Neuville and 18.7s shy of Evans – with no obvious explanation as to why.
“We are too slow, that’s the way it is,” said Ogier.
“I didn’t have enough confidence in the car to really push maximum. It hasn’t been a bad day but fighting with the car and changing the set-up, I haven’t been able to find the perfect way yet.”
Ogier needs to be looking behind him too though, as local hero Dani Sordo is just 5.4s behind him in fourth overall.
Sordo however broke the mould in carrying two spare tires in the trunk of his Hyundai; an adverse strategy that he wasn’t quite sure had paid dividends. He was quicker than Ogier on SS6 but only by 0.3s.
“I was hoping to do a better time here, it’s so close,” he said.
“Because we have two spare our tires are probably a bit better but we are carrying more weight all the time. I did all I can here, but s***.”
Kalle Rovanperä has been locked in a battle with himself – both on the timesheets and in the cockpit as he tried to get on top of the handling characteristics of his Toyota on a new, adapted compound of Pirelli’s asphalt tire.
The two-time WRC event winner is fifth, 13.2s off Sordo’s tail but over half a minute clear of the two M-Sport Fords.
SS6 was an encouraging test for Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith though. Fourmaux was a strong fifth fastest – 2.8s shy of the benchmark time – while Greensmith was also on the money albeit 2.3s off his team-mate’s effort.
“It’s a lot better than this morning,” said Greensmith, who is seventh overall and 18.7s behind Fourmaux.
“To be honest it actually felt quite bad but tomorrow’s stages are absolutely beautiful so let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”
Oliver Solberg made it to the end of Friday without any mishaps, confessing it had been a challenging day aboard his 2C Competition Hyundai but one in which he’d learned plenty.
He’s 26.7s in arrears of Greensmith but 34.9s ahead of team-mate Nil Solans who completed his first day in a World Rally Car.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 8m38.2s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +0.4s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) +1.0s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +1.3s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +2.8s
Leading positions after SS6
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 1h01m26.6s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +0.7s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +19.4s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +24.8s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +38.0s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +1m10.2s
7 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m28.9s
8 Oliver Solberg/Craig Drew (Hyundai) +1m55.6s
9 Nil Solans/Marc Marti (Hyundai) +2m30.5s
10 Eric Camilli/Maxime Vilmot (Citroën) +3m50.5s