The Hyundai driver, contesting a first WRC event of a partial campaign, netted a fourth stage win of the snow rally to briefly extend his lead to 5.7s before Tanak fought back on the final stage of the loop.
Tanak struggled for pace in the day’s first two stages but a push in Stage 11 cut Breen’s advantage back to 3.0s.
Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi was unable to close on Breen and Tanak, as the Finn completed the loop 17.3s behind, and only 10.2s ahead of world champion Kalle Rovanpera, who climbed to fourth.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville picked up a first-stage win of the event to head to midday service in fifth. Toyota’s Elfyn Evans struggled for pace, dropping from fourth to sixth overall, but comfortably ahead of M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet, who struggled with hybrid issues.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta rejoined the rally following his retirement due to damage incurred in a roll on Friday.
Rally leader Breen started the morning having escaped a time penalty overnight after FIA stewards found the Irishman had breached regulations on Thursday night by driving 30 metres in a designated hybrid zone in EV mode using his i20 N’s internal combustion engine.
Luckily Breen was only handed a reprimand after explaining that he left parc ferme using EV power for a 300-metre stretch due to an issue with his engine. The team managed to fix the engine problem but didn’t want to shut off the power in the HEV zone until they were confident it would fire up again.
Penalty scare avoided, Breen picked up where he left off on Friday, as he extended his overall lead on the morning’s first stage despite posting the third fastest time. The effort was quicker than rivals Tanak and Lappi as the advantage grew to 4.6s from Tanak.
«The [mad hatter’s] tea party is alive,» said Breen. «Fair play to the Hyundai engine boys, they’ve done a cracking job.»
Breen’s teammate Neuville posted the fastest time despite finding it difficult to trust the braking performance of his i20 N on the test that featured a series of long straights into corners.
Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
Toyota’s Rovanpera was the Belgian’s nearest rival 1.1s shy of the Belgian, but the world champion wasn’t happy with the suspension set-up change on his GR Yaris made overnight.
In the battle for fourth overall, Evans began to come under increasing pressure from Rovanpera. The Welshman again struggled for confidence in his GR Yaris and dropped 1.8s seconds to his teammate.
Breen’s strong start to the loop continued by winning Stage 10, the longest of the rally at 28.25km. The Hyundai driver managed to pip Rovanpera by 0.8s, who was highly critical of the set up direction chosen, while Neuville was 0.2s slower as a second covered the top three on the test.
«The car is really s*** to drive, I lose so much time everywhere,» said Rovanpera.
«I don’t know if we have made mistake with the set-up or it doesn’t work in these conditions but we need to find something. I’m understeering everywhere. I could be much faster but now I’m fighting a lot.»
Despite the struggles, Rovanpera was able to leapfrog Evans to fourth overall as the latter also continued to struggle for outright pace.
Breen’s immediate rivals Tanak and Lappi also lost ground in the battle for victory. Tanak was 1.1s slower while Lappi lost 6.7s on the stage, which moved the Finn increasingly closer to Rovanpera in the battle for the final podium spot.
Set- up changes made on the road section before Stage 11 helped Rovanpera to a fourth stage win of the event in the final test of the morning.
Tanak also felt more at home on the more twisty roads to set a time a second slower than the champion, but 3.1s faster than Breen to close in on the rally lead.
Neuville set an identical time to his former Hyundai teammate Tanak, which elevated him ahead of the struggling Evans.
Oliver Solberg opened up a commanding 33.0s lead in WRC2 after main rival Sami Pajari suffered a spin in Stage 10 and dropped down the order.
A repeat of the morning stages will follow this afternoon before crews tackle a test in host city Umea to complete the day.