Thierry Neuvllle has become the third leader of Rally Spain in as many stages, usurping the lead Toyota of Sébastien Ogier, as Hyundai team-mate Ott Tänak briefly ended up in threat of not making service.
A stage-winning time on Riba-roja promoted Neuville to the top of the classification, pipping Ogier to the rally lead by 0.5 seconds.
While Neuville felt he’d had a “clean run through”, Ogier had suggested that the lead Hyundai had been braver through the cuts and made up the time by taking more risks.
“I think it’s not a bad stage,” said Ogier of his performance after dropping to second.
“The times are very close to each other. A lot of cuts in there so you have to go for the risk.”
Behind the leading duo, Ott Tänak’s hopes of catching Kalle Rovanperä for third appeared to be in doubt.
Tänak’s i20 N Rally1 pulled into the finish control with an alternator warning light flashing and, in the following road section, he pulled over and attempted roadside repairs.
He’d already lost several seconds with an intermittent hybrid boost problem in the previous two stages but his pace was much better on Riba-Roja, gaining 0.8s over Rovanperä.
That road section delay raised question marks as to whether he’d even make it back to the service park but Tänak finished up his repairs and headed back to service, the delay short enough that he should still reach Porta Aventura on time without a penalty for being late.
Technical woes also befell M-Sport Ford’s Pierre-Louis Loubet, with a minor fire breaking out right at the back of his Ford Puma’s engine bay.
An alarm midway through the Riba-Roja stage led Loubet to scream out in anguish, seemingly aware he would be in major trouble come the finish line.
Indeed, a quick puff of the cockpit fire extinguisher was needed to stop smoke wisping from the engine bay – but after Loubet and Vincent Landais felt the burning had finally stopped, they got back underway and headed for service.
He’d already lost nearly a minute with a puncture on the previous test; a technical gremlin only further compounding his woe.
Elfyn Evans continues to edge further adrift of the top four, now 10.9s back in fifth place.
Having not been able to keep pace with the lead Hyundais or his own team-mates, he tried making a bold tire call – though it didn’t seem to have the desired effect.
“Being a bit careful to be honest; overall, a bit tentative,” Evans said of his pace on the Friday morning loop.
“Tried to chance it now with the hard tyre; I’m not sure it was the right call to be honest, it was quite slick, But there’s not a lot in it either.”
Dani Sordo is now all alone in sixth place, 13.9s adrift of Evans but with a solid 12.5s advantage over Takamoto Katsuta in the junior team Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
A glum-looking Craig Breen appears resigned to holding down seventh place, pointing to his lack of recent Spain experience relative to his rivals making a big difference.
“It helped with the tire in there, I was a bit more confident. But we’re not even close to the ballpark,” Breen confessed.
“Look, it’s been 10 years since I’ve done that stage – obviously they rallied it last year – but still, we’re not at the races yet.”
Gus Greensmith took 1.3s out of M-Sport team-mate Adrien Fourmaux to reduce the gap in the 10th place battle to 7.3s overall.
Teemu Suninen has stormed into the lead of WRC2, coming alive as the amount of mud dragged onto the stages by Rally1 cars lessened and road conditions became more consistent.
After both the shakedown and the rally opener Suninen was frustrated at not having safety crew information to update his notes, leaving him struggling to judge the grip in muddier sections.
But when conditions cleared up on stages three and four he put the hammer down, taking two dominant stage wins and usurping Nikolay Gryazin for the class lead.
His progress was also somewhat aided by a puncture for Yohan Rossel on Les Garrigues Altes that left the Citroën C3 Rally2 driver 8.5s off the leading pace.
“I don’t know where [I got the puncture], honestly,” said Rossel. “I pushed very well. It’s like that. I don’t lose so much time, it’s not important.”
Rossel remains in the hunt, though, running third and 5.3s behind Gryazin, with 7.6s in arrears to rally leader Suninen.
In the WRC2 title battle, Emil Lindholm is on the comeback trail after an earlier puncture set him back almost a minute, having already climbed from 18th to 14th and with a place in the top 10 only 15.3s away.
His closest rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz has failed to capitlaize on Lindholm’s misfortunte, stuck in eighth place and unable to make any inroads into Jari Huttunen’s Ford Fiesta Rally2 ahead of him.
Both are chasing Andreas Mikkelsen’s points total for the season, as the reigning champion has already completed his seven allowed rallies for the season. For Lindholm and Kajetanowicz, Spain is their sixth round of the year, with both heading to the Japan season finale in November.