Ott Tänak hit back at Sébastien Ogier in the fight for second on the Acropolis Rally, as Kalle Rovanperä remained clear out in front ahead of Sunday’s three remaining stages.
Tänak lost significant ground to Ogier across the second half of Saturday, particularly on the first pass of Eleftherohori, where he sacrificed 11.8 seconds to the Toyota driver.
But on the repeat run – the final Saturday stage – Tänak finally managed to unlock something from his Hyundai and put Ogier in his place, outpacing him by 6.9s to hold a 9.4s cushion over the third-placed Toyota.
It was down to a combination of an improved feeling with the i20 Coupe WRC and the soft tires that were bolted onto it.
“Not sure it’s just the confidence, it’s also the grip you get,” Tänak said of the tires.
“I managed to do some changes which finally helped something so the car feels a bit more playful now, and for sure we did also the right tire choice.”
Ogier, who finished the stage before Tänak, was not surprised to hear that his old team-mate was on a charge.
“No wonder, it’s Ott, when he needs to push he always goes for it,” Ogier remarked.
“I think the afternoon loop was good for us, good rhythm and we are still following our plan so so far so good.”
At the head of the pack, Rovanperä’s lead stands at 30.8s after he dropped 3.8s to stage winner Tänak. While it’s undeniably been a good day, Rovanperä feared he may have made a mistake with the set-up of his Yaris WRC.
“Of course I’m quite happy,” he said.
“I think we did a bit of a wrong set-up choice for the afternoon, we changed something for a bit of protection but lost quite a bit of traction.
“At least we are at the end of the day and let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”
Dani Sordo’s pace has dropped significantly since service on Saturday and the trend continued on SS12.
While he has little to fight for and therefore is in little jeopardy of losing position, no rally driver enjoys being bereft of pace. Sordo’s Hyundai remains fourth, but more than two minutes adrift of the lead.
Gus Greensmith was frustrated that he “didn’t do a good stage” but did manage to claw 4.3s from his gap to fifth-placed Adrien Fourmaux, reducing it to 15.8s ahead of Sunday’s final three tests.
“No issue, it was a clean stage for us,” Fourmaux said.
“Wasn’t the perfect day for us but we are learning and taking a lot of experience from this event, that’s the main thing.”
Elfyn Evans is tucked in behind the two M-Sport Fords, having climbed from 16th overall to seventh across the day with his Toyota’s gearbox now fully functional.
Thierry Neuville produced a similar recovery drive, making amends for the time he lost on Friday with broken power-steering.
Neuville started SS12 in 11th place and managed to usurp WRC3 leader Yohan Rossel to take 10th overall.
“I had a good stage to be honest,” he said. “With our goal to catch the Rally2 cars I did a good drive so I’m happy with that.”
Neuville’s deficit to the next Rally2 car – Toksport Škoda’s Andreas Mikkelsen – is 37.8s. Mikkelsen lost the WRC2 lead and seventh overall on SS12, and will head into Sunday 0.8s behind his inspired team-mate Marco Bulacia.
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 10m42s
2 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +3.8s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +6.9s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +10.8s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +12.2s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +23.5s
Leading positions after SS12
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 2h36m52.8s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +30.8s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +40.2s
4 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +2m09.4s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +3m19.2s
6 Greensmith/Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +3m35s
7 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +5m51.9s
8 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo der Ohannesian (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +7m09s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +7m09.8s
10 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +7m47.6s