Thierry Neuville has vaulted from third to first on Ypres Rally Belgium as Elfyn Evans went the opposite way on stage seven, with just 0.7 seconds now splitting the top three.
Ever since World Rally Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä crashed out on the second stage, the fight for the lead has been an epic three-way affair between Evans, Ott Tänak and Neuville.
Neuville had been on the back foot after an overshoot on the opening test, but a dominant 3.3s stage win on SS6 pulled him right into play.
And Neuville kept up that rhythm on Friday’s penultimate stage, beating Hyundai team-mate Tänak by 2.6s to move ahead of him by 0.6s.
But the more important gap was that to Evans. The Toyota driver was exactly five seconds slower through the second run of Mesen – Middelhoek, and that enabled Neuville to gain two positions with Evans just 0.1s behind Tänak in third.
“It wasn’t a great run to be fair, so that’s it,” said Evans.
The Hyundai drivers had been able to turn up the wick, happier with the behavior of their respective i20 N Rally1s.
“This afternoon has been more consistent, actually,” said Tänak. “The final bit is missing but it’s been more neutral.”
Neuville added: “I was really feeling uncomfortable in the car, it’s getting a bit better now.”
Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen are both contesting the second loop of the rally with three soft compound and three wet Pirelli tires.
It’s Lappi who has been able to make the rubber (which isn’t ideal for the dry conditions) work better, beating Breen on all three of the stages so far on Friday afternoon.
That gives the fourth-placed man a 13.7s advantage over Breen, who had three wets bolted on his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 for SS7.
“I think the rain is just dancing around us unfortunately,” Breen rued.
“We really thought we’d be in proper deluge at this stage, but the way the weather fronts are here it’s so difficult to predict. Yeah, not great.”
Lappi meanwhile laughed: “We are leading the class with the wrong tires, so it’s OK.”
Breen’s team-mate Gus Greensmith had stronger pace than on the previous two tests of the loop – tests he felt he wasn’t fast enough on – but he was still pipped by Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg by a tenth of a second on SS7.
But the gap between the sixth and seventh-placed drivers is relatively meaty at 18.8s.
Behind them, M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux overcooked his entry into a square-right, tugging the handbrake to bring the rear into the crops at the edge of the road.
He got away with it – perhaps lucky there wasn’t a ditch on the edge of the corner – but it meant he lost 9.1s to stage winner Neuville, falling to 9.9s behind Solberg overall.
“Sometimes you need a little bit of the luck, so it was a part of the day,” said Fourmaux, who had been unlucky earlier when the rain fell and threw him down from fourth to eighth on the leaderboard.
“I was surprised the grip was so low on this braking, but it’s fine.”