Thierry Neuville has moved into the overnight lead of Rally Sweden after winning Friday’s short spectator stage, as erstwhile leader Elfyn Evans and Toyota team-mate Esapekka Lappi hemorrhaged time with fading tires.
Neuville has been one of six drivers fighting for the lead of this year’s World Rally Championship winter round but waited until the day’s seventh and final stage to become the fifth different leader of the rally.
With a run on the Umeå Sprint featuring as an additional test in the afternoon loop compared to the first pass, tire management became key. Neuville looked to have protected his studs better than most, as he went second-fastest behind first-on-the-road Kalle Rovanperä to establish a 4.3-second lead.
Evans’ drop-off in performance was so severe that he fell from first to third, 7.4s in arrears of Neuville’s Hyundai.
“I just seemed to have no grip at all,” said Evans. “I did what I could to manage but very difficult.”
Neuville added: “We had a very clever afternoon, we managed our tires perfectly and I have to say the car was working perfectly.”
Despite spending most of Friday afternoon frustrated to be running first on the road, cleaning a line for his rivals behind, Rovanperä ended the day in second, a mere 4.3s down on the new leader Neuville.
But Lappi was in the same boat as their other team-mate Evans: struggling with tire wear.
“I did what I could but yeah we are having big issues with the tire wear,” said Lappi who is fourth overnight.
“I thought I’m smart with the tires but I just cannot save them. I braked differently, I was gentle on throttle… I don’t know what I should do.”
The troubles of the two Toyotas were nothing compared to Oliver Solberg, who is now a very distant player in the lead fight. He lost a massive 15.8s on just the short 3.34-mile stage, dropping to fifth place and 28.1s away from the lead.
Solberg’s tires weren’t in the best condition either but he had a bigger issue: “I overshot the first junction, completely misunderstood it so lost a hell of a lot of time,” he said.
“That was a bit stupid.”
Gus Greensmith had yet another messy moment on the short Umeå Sprint stage, running too deep into a slow-speed left-hander and collecting a snowbank but managing to free himself.
It pointed to a frustrated driver after a hybrid and gearbox problem earlier in the morning and a wild moment into a snowbank in the afternoon, and his agitated body language at the end of the stage told the story.
Greensmith ends Friday last of the remaining Rally1 cars in eighth, 1m48.1s down on rally leader Neuville.
Takamoto Katsuta overcame a trip into a snowbank that cost him 30s to head M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux by 14s overnight.
Fourmaux was on a confidence-building mission after his Monte Carlo crash and has a 15.2s advantage over his team-mate Greensmith.
Ole Christian Veiby had led WRC2 throughout the entire of Friday – drawing praise from reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen – but dropped a massive 20.3s on the final stage to slip behind Mikkelsen overnight.
Veiby had led the class by 14.8s prior to Umeå Sprint but a stall at the first junction of the stage destroyed his lead.
“It wouldn’t restart, I was standing there for so long,” Veiby said. “It was such a good day but it’s a big shame. [At least] now he [Mikkelsen] can clean the road for us tomorrow.”
Nikolay Gryazin rounds out the WRC2 podium in third, overhauling Georg Linnamäe on the final stage who had “wasted” tires on his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
Jari Huttunen is fifth but was still frustrated two stages later to have stalled twice on the start-line of SS6.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 3m36.2s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1.1s
3 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +7.3s
4 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +8.4s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +8.9s
6 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota) +9.0s
7 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +9.1s
8 Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (Ford) +11.4s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda) +12.8s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +15.8s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 1h02m31.2s
2 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +4.3s
3 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +7.4s
4 Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) +8.8s
5 Solberg/Edmondson (Hyundai) +28.1s
6 Katsuta/Johnston (Toyota) +1m18.9s
7 Fourmaux/Coria (M-Sport Ford) +1m25.7s
8 Greensmith/Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +1m32.9ss
9 Mikkelsen/Eriksen (Škoda) +3m08.9s
10 Ole Christian Veiby/Stig Rune Skjaermoen (Volkswagen) +3m13.0s