Thierry Neuville leads the Central European Rally overnight after the first two stages in the Czech Republic on Thursday.
Ott Tänak won the opening superspecial stage at a trotting track near the Prague ceremonial start, but it was Neuville who went quickest on SS2 to grab the lead of the rally by 1.2 seconds ahead of Friday’s stages.
As darkness fell on the fast 5.5-mile, two-lap run through Klatovy, Neuville made the best of the damp conditions. His Hyundai i20 N went 2.2s faster than Tänak’s Ford Puma.
“It was not the greatest stage,” reckoned Neuville, who chose to run on three soft tires and one wet. “I don’t know about the tires. I think [conditions were] in between the wets and the softs. I decided to go for the softs at the very last moment. The visibility is really difficult with all these anti-cuts – they are reflecting the light so you can’t really see very well.”
Tänak used four soft tires, as he had done earlier, and reflected Neuville’s comments: “There was not too much water but it’s just wet enough to not get the temperature in, so very sketchy in places.”
Toyota driver Sébastien Ogier makes it three different cars in the top three places. He lies third overall, 4.6s behind Tänak, after managing only the fifth fastest time on SS2. “I didn’t have any feeling on this stage, to be honest,” Ogier admitted.
The Toyota team was expecting wetter conditions, leaving its drivers hampered by running wet rubber all round. But Kalle Rovanperä managed the third fastest time on SS2 to leave him fourth overnight, just 0.1s behind Ogier.
“We expected a bit of rain here,” admitted Rovanperä. “As long as we are OK pace to Elfyn [Evans] that’s fine for me, but difficult weekend ahead.”
Crucially, Rovanperä is nearly five seconds in front of team-mate and title rival Evans who is eighth overall after losing time overshooting a junction on SS2.
Between the title contenders, the second Hyundai of Teemu Suninen is fifth, with Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta sixth and M-Sport driver Pierre-Louis Loubet seventh.
Suninen was sixth fastest through SS2, 6.9s slower than team-mate Neuville, after experiencing the car on damp asphalt for the first time. The Finn is now 2.4s behind Rovanperä and holds a 1.8s advantage over Katsuta. Loubet is a further 0.3s behind.
Esapekka Lappi’s Hyundai is ninth, 13.6s off the pace. Most of that was lost to a 10s jump-start penalty on the opening stage, without which he would be lying in third overall.
The Rally1 field is completed by Grégoire Munster, making only his second start in the M-Sport Puma. The Luxembourg driver is 1.4s behind Lappi in 10th overall after losing his handbrake on SS2.
In WRC2, Yohan Rossel took the lead on the day’s second test. His Citroën C3 Rally2 is 3.1s ahead of the non-scoring Adrien Fourmaux (Ford Fiesta).
Andreas Mikkelsen (Škoda Fabia RS Rally2), who won the first stage, is a further 0.1s adrift. Nikolay Gryazin is third in WRC2, another 1.5s back.
Gus Greensmith (Škoda), who is battling Rossel and Mikkelsen for the championship title, is joint fourth in WRC2 with Kajetan Kajetanowicz, 5.5s behind the WRC2 leader.