Ott Tänak shaded Esapekka Lappi on the fourth stage of Rally Finland but scared himself in the process, while Adrien Fourmaux ran into more steering-related trouble.
On the first pass of Laukaa, Tänak was utterly flawless as he beat everyone by at least 2.7seconds on a rally as typically tight as Finland.
On the second run Tänak maintained the intensity, but he seems to be right on the limit of what he and the Hyundai can do.
“Oof,” he exhaled. “It’s a bit tricky, hands are a bit shaking after a run like this. Not enjoying really.”
Tänak’s effort was enough to edge rival Lappi by 0.4 seconds though, stretching his advantage to 5.4s.
“He is doing a really nice job I have to say,” said Lappi. “We had a really clean run. Some places too slow but you cannot do every corner perfect.”
Behind the leading duo, Elfyn Evans and Craig Breen are locked in a battle for third spot. Breen is chasing down Evans and had gained time on both of Friday’s stages so far, but he dropped 1.2s to his rival on SS4.
“I had not a moment but just got completely off-line near the finish in a place where I was trying to make a bit of time back because I was slow this morning, a bit of a pity,” he said.
The time loss undoes Breen’s hard work from the morning as he trails the Toyota by 1.6s, having started the stage just four tenths behind.
Evans meanwhile is 4.9s behind team-mate Lappi, 10.3 down on the lead.
Kalle Rovanperä was hampered slightly on the first pair of stages as the first car on the road, and as a result he’s been unable to make his presence felt in the battle at the front.
But the runaway championship leader felt the road cleaning effect was less profound on the second pass.
“All the lines are there now, but it’s still quite clogged after the zero cars and everything,” he described. “I am still opening the road in places, but it’s better than the morning.”
Rovanperä remains fifth overall, 1.4s behind Breen and 13.3s away from the lead, while Takamoto Katsuta holds sixth another 4.1s behind.
Pierre-Louis Loubet lost seventh place to Thierry Neuville on SS4. Crossing the finish-line he was clearly angry and upset about something that turned out to be driver error.
“I stalled at the start,” he rued. “The [launch] strategy it was not working, and I lift [the clutch] too fast.”
Neuville and Gus Greensmith were two drivers who have lacked confidence during Rally Finland so far, but the service break has afforded them the chance to fiddle with some settings and reset their brains.
Neuville is an uncharacteristic eighth overall, struggling with rear traction in his Hyundai, and still not totally comfortable.
“I tried to push in there a bit more but I feel like it’s not coming together yet,” he said.
Tenth-placed Greensmith however did notice some improvements.
“It felt better but a long way from perfect,” he said. “Couple of mistakes cost me a couple of seconds, it looks better than this morning.”
Jari Huttunen is ninth in another Puma Rally1, 1.3s behind Loubet’s similar car, but things are far less rosy aboard team-mate Fourmaux’s machine as he dropped close to a minute on Laukaa 2.
He’s well out of contention after he broke his steering on the previous stage before service, but a heroic repair effort has kept Fourmaux in the rally.
But this three-stage loop could be a rather painful one.
“We had a leak with the power-steering so we cannot fix it on the loop,” he said, “so I need to try and drive as I can with no power-steering but it’s just so tight.”