Thierry Neuville leads a round of the World Rally Championship for the first time since June, beating team-mate Ott Tänak on the opening street stage of Rally Finland to establish an early Hyundai 1-2.
Harju runs through the streets of host city Jyväskylä and is the traditional curtain-raiser for Rally Finland, but this year the route featured a few revisions with a new cobbled section and a slightly different forest section.
It’s of course a different challenge to the white-knuckle rollercoaster that lies in wait over the weekend, but it was an impressive start from Hyundai to have two cars in the top two places overnight.
Neuville beat Tänak by a strong 1.2seconds, while the quickest Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta was another 1.4s back.
“I always like the superspecial stages and I had some fun in there, but tomorrow is a whole other world,” warned Neuville.
“We made some setup changes and I really cross my fingers that tomorrow I have a better feeling – it won’t be an easy day but we’re going to push.”
Tänak’s a two time winner in Finland, but after a promising stage one any thoughts that that pace could be sustained and lead to a challenge against the Toyotas, which are favorite to win Rally Finland, were quickly dispelled.
“No!” said Tänak, when asked if he could beat any of the Toyotas.
“It’s not coming overnight, we just need to accept that. We’re fighting so hard in the car, it’s living its own life.”
Katsuta won the Harju stage last year but there was no repeat performance in 2022, but it transpired the Toyota Next Generation driver was hampered.
“We have no hybrid, we have no boost!” said an unusually agitated Katsuta.
“Not nice to start like this, hopefully they fix it. I don’t know, it’s a hybrid issue quite often for me.”
World championship leader Kalle Rovanperä was fourth quickest on SS1, a tenth slower than Katsuta. He’s fourth, but carrying the weight and expectation of a nation into the weekend.
“Of course the feeling and expectations are there, but I put them on my own side to always win the rally,” he said of the pressure to win.
“The situation is the same as always but just more support and crazy nice atmosphere, so of course it’s more enjoyable.”
On his first ever competitive stage in a top class car in the WRC, Jari Huttunen took the honor of being the fastest M-Sport Ford driver, setting the fifth fastest time.
Huttunen, who is usually a quiet and reserved character, was visibly – and audibly – on the cloud nine at the end of the stage.
“It was an amazing feeling,” he said, “but I’m quite happy that I didn’t make any big mistakes, I didn’t hit anything!
“It’s nice to feel the power when you open the throttle.”
Reigning Rally Finland winner Elfyn Evans matched Huttunen’s pace on Harju to share that Xth place, 3.2s down on the overnight leader Neuville.
Esapekka Lappi, Oliver Solberg and Pierre-Louis Loubet all shared the same stage time on SS1 and therefore all hold seventh place overnight, 0.6s down on Huttunen and Evans.
Lappi is expected to be the quickest of the trio when the rally heads to the forests on Friday, as he has won Rally Finland in the past.
“I would always like to,” he said when asked if he was able to win again this year, “I’ve been trying five years.”
Solberg and Loubet meanwhile are starting their first Rally Finlands in a top-class car.
“For sure it’s a dream come true to be able to drive a WRC car in Finland, it’s very special,” said Solberg. “Tonight we took it easy it doesn’t matter about the time, it all starts tomorrow.”
Loubet added: “For sure it’s always special to start such a special rally, so we try to enjoy, take maximum pleasure and we’ll do our best.”
Craig Breen suffered a scare within the first mile of the rally as he slid wide at a square-right after a chicane and nudged a hay-bale.
It cost him a couple of seconds and mildly damaged his Puma’s bumper, but other than that everything was OK.
“I just tried my best to get through without making too many mistakes, but obviously it was a bit slipper than I expected,” Breen said.
The misdemeanour restricted last year’s third-place finisher to 11th overnight, 0.1s down on M-Sport team-mate Adrien Fourmaux.
The other full-time M-Sport driver, Gus Greensmith, was slowest of the Rally1 runners to lie in 12th place overnight, 5.5s off the lead, but superspecial stages have never been his friend.
“I hate this stage, always have done,” he said, “so glad to get it to the end!”
As he had been last year and indeed on shakedown earlier in the day, Teemu Suninen was quickest in WRC2, setting a time 0.5s beyond the reach of 2019 and ’20 Finnish champion Teemu Asunmaa.