Ott Tänak has got his quest for a hattrick of World Rally Championship victories off to the perfect start with fastest time on the Acropolis Rally Greece shakedown ahead of Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville, as Sébastien Loeb ran into trouble.
Tänak, the winner in Finland and Ypres, set the benchmark with a time of 2m37.9 seconds over the 2.25-mile Lygaria warm-up test, 0.3s clear of Neuville.
But it’s the times after the first pass that may be more representative as Friday’s opening leg is a gruelling one with six stages, no service break and only one repeat test.
That means those running at the head of the field, like Tänak and points leader Kalle Rovanperä, are likely to struggle.
Indeed, after the first of a maximum three passes of shakedown, it was Dani Sordo – starting his first WRC event since Rally Italy in early June – that set the pace ahead of the M-Sports of Gus Greensmith and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
The trio are the last three cars onto the road on Friday.
“The grip is changing a lot,” admitted Tänak, “especially early on the road some places there is good grip some place there is no grip, so it will definitely be demanding tomorrow.”
But life was not so smooth aboard Loeb’s car. The nine-time world champion, competing for the first time since Safari Rally Kenya, had been competitive after the early passes of shakedown but was unable to set a third time.
Loeb’s Puma developed a misfire, so he switched the engine off and guided the car back to service where the team will investigate the issue before SS1 later this evening.
“We were on three cylinders at the start-line,” Loeb told DirtFish. “We changed the plugs but it didn’t work so we had to come back to tow the car.”
It was undeniably a positive shakedown stage for the Hyundai team though, with Neuville second and Sordo eventually slotting in fourth fastest.
“Honestly I have a little bit of understeer in the corners and quite a lot of dust in some places, lost a bit of time in the fast places but quite happy,” Sordo surmised.
M-Sport’s Craig Breen is in need of a result after three accidents in the last three rallies, but the 2014 Acropolis Rally winner has been in a relaxed mood so far this weekend and set an encouraging third-best time on shakedown – the only driver other than Neuville to be within a second of Tänak, 0.9s slower.
“Honestly really looking forward to it,” Breen said.
“The place has good memories, obviously happy hunting ground, its where I got my first big win a long way back – before I had any grey hairs. The test was really good, let’s see how it goes.”
Esapekka Lappi rose up to fifth fastest on his final run of shakedown, three tenths down on Sordo and 2.1s off the ultimate pace. He’s expecting an onslaught on Friday, but will at least have a decent road position in seventh.
“Definitely Friday is the toughest day, it’s very rough all day and without service it’s about survival,” Lappi explained.
“Rest is not easy, but it gets smoother, there is some bad sections as well but quite slippery to be fair, especially after Belgium! But anyway it’s going to be a nice weekend.”
Rovanperä, who can win his first world title this weekend if he outscores Tänak by 18 points, was the second quickest of Toyotas quartet in sixth place, but aware he faces a big task on Friday as first car on the road.
“Here on the shakedown it felt quite horrible to be honest, much less grip than I was expecting,” he grumbled. “There was no grip at all.”
After the first pass, only Takamoto Katsuta’s sister GR Yaris Rally1 of the works cars was slower.
Loubet slotted into seventh place on the timesheets, just 0.1s clear of Elfyn Evans, with a pleased Greensmith another two tenths adrift.
“Beautiful country, beautiful roads – the whole team likes Kenya, and the whole team likes Greece,” Greensmith said.
“Straightaway the car was great to drive, so looking forward to it.”
Loeb’s best effort was good enough for 10th, 1.6s down on Greensmith but half a second clear of Katsuta.
Of the Rally1 cars, Katsuta remained quicker than only Jourdan Serderidis who’s making his second WRC start in a Ford Puma Rally1 on his home event.
Katsuta is at a disadvantage to most of his rivals though having not taken part on the Acropolis last year due to then co-driver Keaton Williams needing to fly home during recce due to a personal emergency.
In WRC2, Andreas Mikkelsen knows he realistically needs a win in order to successfully defend his title in what is his final rally of the season.
However it was championship rival Yohan Rossel that set the pace on shakedown in his PH Sport Citroën C3 Rally2, 2.2s up on Mikkelsen who elected to have just one attempt of the stage.
Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen is another expected victory contender, and will be keen to return to the top step after his Rally Finland victory was ripped away from him due to an underweight front bumper.
But Suninen was potentially quite prophetic in his pre-rally prediction: “The plan is to survive,” he said. “The winner is who can stay away from the problems.”