Kalle Rovanperä ended Friday’s Acropolis Rally stages in the overall lead, but an inspired run by Ott Tänak on the day’s final test allowed him to reclaim second from Sébastien Ogier.
Ogier stole second from Tänak on the previous stage with his second stage win of the event, but after losing 3.6 seconds to the Hyundai on SS6 Elatia he will start Saturday’s tests 0.2s behind.
Just 3.9s separated the overall top three though come the end of the day as Rovanperä was clear of Tänak by 3.7s.
“The feeling is quite OK,” said the rally leader, who extended his lead by 0.9s on SS6.
“Let’s see what we can do tomorrow, I think we need to change the set-up a bit.”
Tänak consistently complained of a lack of feeling with his i20 Coupe WRC throughout the leg, and that lack of sensation persisted on SS6. But the 2019 world champion pushed through on Elatia, which resulted in a fastest time among the frontrunners.
“Today it’s been a real struggle,” he said. “I tried really hard on this one but I had no feeling so for sure I can’t do the whole rally like this. It’s difficult, but I keep pushing.”
Ogier meanwhile was much happier – no wonder given he stayed in the lead fight despite sweeping the stages for his rivals.
“I think I can be really happy with this day honestly,” he said, “I did everything I could and managed to stay out of trouble.”
Ogier’s mood will no doubt be boosted by both of his main title rivals running into trouble on Friday.
Elfyn Evans’s Yaris developed a major gearbox problem on the second stage of the day that could not be fixed, with no service break in Friday’s itinerary.
Evans was forced to struggle through four stages with just one gear, significantly compromising his pace.
“I think we tried everything we can but unfortunately this is how it is today,” he said. “We can just get back now, get it sorted and get going tomorrow.”
Thierry Neuville, who shares second place and a 38-point deficit to Ogier in the championship with Evans, had been running at a slightly lackluster pace in fifth before he lost his power-steering at the midday tire fitting zone.
He was 24 minutes late to SS4, earning a four-minute penalty and then losing more time on the stage as he wrestled with his Hyundai. Neuville managed to resolve the issue, however, and returned to speed on SS5 and SS6.
He was looking set to win SS6 before being slowed by a problem for Pierre-Louis Loubet. 2C Competition’s Loubet’s steering broke with a problem at the left-front, which left his i20 Coupe WRC stranded in a precarious position, hanging off a bank in a narrow section very close to the end of the test.
Spotting a red-flag from a marshal and with so many spectators on the road, Neuville slowed and got out to check Loubet was OK.
Loubet’s car eventually made it to the stage-finish through shear determination from spectators, but will be forced to retire as his Hyundai was not fit to be driven safely to service under its own power.
Neuville did receive a notional time – a 5m58.1s, which gave him the stage win – to account for the time loss but, in reality, it will not greatly affect what has been a troubled day.
“We had a f****** s*** day, nothing was working,” he said, bluntly.
“Lots of problems and issues but OK, I was really happy with the job I have done to fix the car.”
Further up the leaderboard, Hyundai team-mate Dani Sordo is fourth overall on his first WRC event with co-driver Cándido Carrera.
Sordo jumped the start of SS3 which cost him 10s, but would have been fourth on pace regardless.
He was third fastest on SS6 and 0.1s faster than Adrien Fourmaux, who completed Friday in fifth despite driving a “slightly modified” Ford Fiesta WRC that was missing its rear bumper and diffuser.
Fourmaux’s M-Sport team-mate Gus Greensmith ended Friday 29.1s down after a day that was punctuated by niggling problems.
“It’s not been a good day in the office,” he said. “I think the damper’s lost all its oil at the end of this stage so glad to see the end of the day. Let’s go again tomorrow.”
Marco Bulacia had a stellar run in his Toksport Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, leading team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen by 5.4s at the end of the day.
Mikkelsen is driving with the WRC2 title in mind, and his prospects were significantly brightened by chief rival and defending champion Mads Østberg losing a front driveshaft on Friday’s first stage.
Østberg retired from the contest altogether on SS5 when he hit a bank over a jump, causing his Citroën C3 Rally2 to spin round as it was rear-wheel driven only. The damage from the incident proved too great to continue.
Oliver Solberg’s day was also fraught. The Hyundai driver led the way after two stages but the new i20 N Rally2 picked up suspension problems on SS4, which forced Solberg into retirement.
Nikolay Gryazin completed the day-one WRC2 podium places on his first rally with a Ford Fiesta Rally2, but it was WRC3 leader Chris Ingram and second placed Kajetan Kajetanowicz who filled out the top 10 overall.
Ingram was just 6.4s behind Mikkelsen’s similar Fabia, with 10.4s in hand over class rival and two-time Acropolis winner Kajetanowicz.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 5m58.1s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +1.3s
3 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +3.8s
4 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +4.5s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +4.6s
6 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +4.9s
Leading positions after SS6
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 1h01m57.1s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +3.7s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +3.9s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +23.9s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +54.2s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m23.3s
7 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo der Ohannesian (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m40.9s
8 Andreas Mikkelsen/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m46.3s
9 Chris Ingram/Ross Whittock (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +2m52.7s
10 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +3m03.1s