Sébastien Ogier made significant inroads into Kalle Rovanperä’s Acropolis Rally lead on SS5, jumping up to second at the expense of Ott Tänak as Thierry Neuville resolved his power-steering issues.
Ogier began the Thiva stage just 7.5 seconds adrift of the lead despite running at the head of the field and theoretically facing the worst of the stage conditions.
The seven-time World Rally Champion did not enjoy the longest stage of Friday either, admitting he “struggled” with the car as “the grip wasn’t consistent and I wasn’t really enjoying”.
“[A] few hours before it would’ve bene really good to be in front but now not anymore unfortunately, it dried out too much,” he added.
But as it turned out, Ogier could not be matched as his chief rivals also struggled through the demanding 14.5-mile stage.
Rally leader Rovanperä, who leaked 4.7s to Ogier to hold just a 2.8s advantage, admitted he was “not surprised” to have lost ground.
“I can’t remember when I’ve been driving on this hard or quite difficult conditions. It was a big struggle,” he said.
Tänak, who was demoted to third by Ogier’s charge, lost more time to Rovanperä – 2.4s to be precise – to trail by 6.2s overall, 3.4s behind Ogier.
He was not loving life behind the wheel of his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, saying: “I’m just today really struggling with the car, no feeling at all. I do my best but it’s not so enjoyable.”
Team-mate Neuville however was far happier. Having battled hard on the previous test with no power-steering, the Ypres Rally winner was back on form on SS5, setting the second-fastest time as he went just 2.3s slower than Ogier.
“Fixed it is a big word but at least it’s drivable,” he said, when asked if the problem had disappeared.
“The pipe was broken, I was able to glue it but some electrical issue made it even more difficult.”
Dani Sordo was yet another driver to find SS5 tough, but he managed to produce the third-fastest time in his Hyundai, 4.5s off the benchmark, to maintain a strong hold on fourth place.
“I was expecting to do worse,” Sordo admitted. “[The] time is not so bad, I was not really happy.
“All good with the pacenotes and all but in some places it was difficult to read the road.”
A spin for Gus Greensmith dampened his hopes of catching his team-mate Adrien Fourmaux, as he lost 18.7s to lie 23.9s behind in sixth overall.
“Into a left and [I carried] too much speed and it basically just pulled me around,” Greensmith explained.
“And I think [I had] a rear left puncture towards the end as well.”
Fourmaux meanwhile was among the minority who actually enjoyed Thiva. He said: “I was enjoying it a lot, it was a very nice stage compared to the one before.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet was “careful” on SS5 as he had “two slow punctures, no spare wheels”. Despite this, his time was just 1.6s slower than Fourmaux’s effort.
Elfyn Evans struggled once more on SS5, completing his third stage of the day with a troubled gearbox. Evans appeared to be able to shift up the gears at sporadic moments, but still lost 50s to the stage winner Ogier.
Asked how the situation was, Evans simply replied: “Difficult still.”
Marco Bulacia wrestled the lead of WRC2 away from his Toksport Škoda team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen on SS5, outpacing him by 2.5s to lead by 1.7s.
“I thought we were going to be slower because I was struggling a lot to find the right technique for this stage but yeah, happy that we are almost ending the first day and we need to continue like this,” he said.
On his part, Mikkelsen confessed he wasn’t giving it absolutely everything. “Of course when Mads had his problems it’s important that we finish,” he said.
The two Fabia Rally2 evo drivers are seventh and eighth overall due to the high attrition in the World Rally Car field.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 15m25.2s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2.3s
3 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +4.5s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +4.7s
5 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +7.1s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +17.5s
Leading positions after SS5
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 55m55.2s
2 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +2.8s
3 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +6.1s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +23.2s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +53.4s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m17.3s
7 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo der Ohannesian (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m29.3s
8 Andreas Mikkelsen/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m31s
9 Chris Ingram/Ross Whittock (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m39.2s
10 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m45s