The final two stages of Rally Italy’s Friday itinerary have both been canceled, so Esapekka Lappi leads Ott Tänak by 0.7s overnight.
First of the two stages to fall was Osilo-Tergu, which was called off due to an incident from its earlier pass that was not cleared in time for the Rally1 cars arriving for their second go.
Subsequently the second pass of Sedini-Castelsardo was also waved off, as the convoy of cars was not able to reach the startline of the second stage of the loop in good time.
While Tänak lost the lead on the last stage to run, the initial pass of Sedini-Castelsardo, he will likely be relieved that the day’s remaining stages failed to run.
A transmission issue left him with only three powered wheels, costing him around 2.9 seconds per mile once the fault had kicked in on the final split of the stage.
Both had been trading handful of seconds throughout Friday, with Lappi initially moving out front on the day’s second stage.
It took only one stage for Tänak to respond and move to the front for the first time, after which he built up a 6.4s lead thanks to a stage win on Osilo-Tergu’s first pass.
But that advantage was swiftly erased on the final stage as Lappi responded with a stage win of his own which, when combined with Tänak’s technical gremlin, was enough to for the lead to change hands once more.
Elfyn Evans should have been part of that lead battle, having stormed to the front on the first full-length gravel test of the rally.
But a hard impact on some bedrock on the third stage rendered his Toyota undrivable, as soaring water temperatures left him no choice but to park up and retire.
That looked to have left M-Sport duo Pierre-Louis Loubet and Craig Breen to battle tooth-and-nail for the final podium spot. But with the pair making several minor errors over the course of the day, it allowed Hyundai’s charging Dani Sordo to close up and enter the fight for third.
Loubet had outbraked himself and overshot a junction on stage three, costing him precious seconds – and also regretted fitting too many hard tires, costing him third to Breen.
But Breen would later make multiple mistakes of his own. He also overshot a junction on the following test, Terranova, then slid wide and briefly stalled on Osilo-Tergu, and finally had a half-spin at a downhill hairpin on Sedini-Castelsardo, the combination of which allowed Loubet to sneak back in front by 0.4s.
Both are now under pressure from Sordo, who is now in play to repeat his third-place performance from Rally Portugal two weeks ago. Two stage wins on Terranova and Monti di Ala e Budduso went a long way to making up for a slow start on the day’s dusty first stage that had dropped him all the way to 11th.
Adrien Fourmaux is 14.7s adrift of Sordo, unable to keep pace with his fellow Ford Puma drivers but otherwise content with a drama-free day. His only issue was a front-left puncture on Monti di Ala e Budduso, which had left him bemused as an impact with a rock in the racing line had left him expecting the front-right to have gone down instead.
As the third and first cars on the road, Toyota duo Takamoto Katsuta and Kalle Rovanperä struggled on the afternoon loop, as road sweeping kicked in with full force.
After the first two stages of the first Friday loop, championship leader Rovanperä had mitigated his losses quite well and was lying fifth, only 12.5s off the leader. That good start became undone thereafter, as he ran wide and ripped the rear wing off his GR Yaris, making it a handful to drive until midday service.
Road sweeping was even worse on the second pair of Friday stages, as even with a fully functional rear wing he lost another half minute to the leaders.
With over a minute in arrears to team-mate Lappi out front, a fourth WRC win in a row looks highly unlikely for Rovanperä – but the seventh place Katsuta holds is much more realistic, as he needs to find only 7.7s to take the position from him.
Thierry Neuville suffered a similar fate to his outing on Rally Portugal, as technical gremlins intervened and sent him plummeting down the leaderboard.
Though he failed to ascend higher than sixth in the overall classification at any point, Hyundai’s top scorer so far this year had been able to limit his losses to 17.7s after the first loop of Friday stages.
That effective damage limitation work was quickly undone by a transmission fault on his Hyundai i20 N Rally1, leaving him with only front-wheel-drive. Sixth became 10th, though he ends the day ninth after catching and passing WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen.
Gus Greensmith, who is nominated to score points for M-Sport with Sébastien Loeb not present, had any hopes of a maiden podium disappear on stage three, when he slid wide and couldn’t get his Puma restarted.
It cost him over two minutes and leaves him 12th overall, though needs to find only 19.4s to pass Mikkelsen for a spot in the top 10 – an easy task given the performance difference between Greensmith’s Puma Rally1 and Mikkelsen’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
More importantly for Mikkelsen, two of his WRC2 title rivals hit trouble on Friday, putting him in a strong position to retake the championship lead he lost in Portugal to an engine failure.
The reigning champion spent much of Friday locked in a close tussle with the current points leader Yohan Rossel, and Mikkelsen had slowly edged ahead by 6.5s after Osilo-Tergu.
But the battle of the two title protagonists was cut short on Sedini-Castelsardo, as Rossel crashed his Citroën C3 Rally2 only a few corners in and retired on the spot, leaving Toksport team-mate Nikolay Gryazin as Mikkelsen’s closest rival.
Teemu Suninen had started on the back foot, dropping 21.5s on Friday’s first stage. Having only a two-minute gap between himself and the car ahead in the running order, Fourmaux’s Ford, rather than the three afforded to the Rally1 crews meant he suffered a bigger dust cloud than his WRC2 rivals and was playing catch-up thereafter.
That catch-up game was starting to work, having climbed from 12th to third in class. There was a twist, however: Suninen had damaged the rear-left corner of his Hyundai i20 N Rally2 in an impact, breaking his rear suspension and forcing him to park up.
Though the subsequent two stages were cancelled, Suninen would still have been required to transit through the time controls in road mode, so retired on the spot regardless.
Suninen’s disappearance from the leaderboard promotes Jan Solans to the final podium spot, though he faces fierce competition for the place.
Solans, Marco Bulacia, Chris Ingram, Jari Huttunen and Fabrizio Zaldivar are all covered by 12.9s, setting up a tense five-way fight for the podium on Saturday.
Leading positions after SS7
1 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota) 1h10m41.9s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +0.7s
3 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford) +15.1s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +15.5s
5 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) +16.1s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +30.8s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +1m05.5s
8 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +1m13.1s
9 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2m07.2s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda) +2m20.8s
WRC2 positions after SS7
1 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda) 1h13m02.7s
2 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Škoda) +15.8s
3 Jan Solans/Rodrigo Sanjuan (Citroën) +38.3s
4 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo Der Ohannesian (Škoda) +40.4s
5 Chris Ingram/Craig Drew (Škoda) +42.6s
6 Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (M-Sport Ford) +45.7s
7 Fabrizio Zaldivar/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai) +51.2s
8 Sami Pajari/Enni Mälkönen (Škoda) +1m16.4s