Kalle Rovanperä laid out his ambitions for Acropolis Rally victory on the opening test of Saturday, storming to a healthy stage win over Ott Tänak.
SS7 Pavliani was the longest stage of the rally so far at 15 miles, and Rovanperä, Tänak and third-placed Sébastien Ogier headed onto it separated by just 3.9 seconds overall.
However the trio exited it covered by 16.7s as Rovanperä obliterated the rest, winning the stage by 5.6s with Ogier 12.8s slower.
It was an emphatic statement, reminiscent of his dominant stage win on Saturday morning of Rally Estonia where the Toyota driver almost put the contest out of reach of rival Craig Breen.
Asked where his SS7 performance came from, Rovanperä said: “I don’t know.
“Our tire package [two hards and two softs] was not the right one for this, in the beginning I could use the two hards OK but at the end I was struggling.
“I tried to give it a bit of a push and the time looks good, so it’s nice.”
Tänak was a clear second fastest but unable to live with Rovanperä, although the 2019 world champion – who is now 9.3s off the lead – was still not happy with the feeling in his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, something that afflicted his Friday too.
Asked if he enjoyed the stage, he said: “No! Quite surprised at the time, I really struggled and I was just driving through.
“Obviously it works but definitely not a good improvement from yesterday.”
Ogier could now be more of a distant player in the fight for victory, but third place will suit him nicely given his title rivals are both behind him and out of the points.
The rejuvenated Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville were both back up to pace on Saturday’s opener – Evans now driving with a fully operational Toyota after being hampered by gearbox trouble for most of Friday.
Evans was impressive, setting the third-fastest time despite his earlier position on the road, while Neuville punched in the seventh-best effort. He was 14.4s slower than Evans on what he called a “never-ending” stage.
Dani Sordo was fifth fastest to cement his fourth overall, now over 40s clear of the fastest M-Sport driver.
Both M-Sport cars were running exclusively soft compound Pirellis as opposed to a mix of softs and hards like their Toyota and Hyundai rivals.
Sixth-placed Gus Greensmith got the better of his team-mate Adrien Fourmaux, one position ahead, by eight seconds to reduce his deficit to 21.1s.
“It seemed better than yesterday, still not great,” said Greensmith (pictured below). “In the slippy section I struggled to keep the rhythm which seems to be the key to this rally.”
Fourmaux felt he “was a bit too hard with the set-up” commenting he had “never felt so much time in first gear” on a stage.
Andreas Mikkelsen meanwhile has relieved Marco Bulacia of the WRC2 lead and seventh overall, going 17.5s faster to lead by 12s.
Pierre-Louis Loubet returned to action on Saturday bogged down in 31st overall after his dramatic steering failure on the final stage of Friday.
He opened the road in his 2C Competition Hyundai, and described the middle of the stage as “like ice”. His time was beaten by Mikkelsen’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 19m27.7s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +5.6s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +10s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +12.8s
5 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +16.4s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +20.7s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 1h21m24.8s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +9.3s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +16.7s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +40.3s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +1m22.9s
6 Greensmith/Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m44s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +3m21.6s
8 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo der Ohannesian (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +3m33.6s
9 Chris Ingram/Ross Whittock (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +3m53.4s
10 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hämäläinen (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +4m10.3s