Katsuta leads as inspired Neuville impresses

Toyota driver Katsuta, starting sixth on the road, produced a strong and consistent pace across Friday morning’s four stages to take a 2.9s lead over Neuville at the midday tyre fitting zone.

Reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera managed to drive around an ill-handling Toyota to sit third, 3.3s adrift, ahead of Hyundai’s Ott Tanak [+4.1] and Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier [+7.5s], who also struggled for confidence behind the wheel.

Dani Sordo scored two stage wins to hold sixth [+9.1s] in front of M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux, title contender Elfyn Evans [+17.5s], Gregoire Munster [+1m26.5s} and WRC2 runner Oliver Solberg [+1m40.7s], who rounded out the top 10.

Crews were greeted by much damper conditions than expected for the day’s opening stage [Mortagua, 18.15km] which played into the hands of the earlier runners.

Road sweeper Neuville set the pace with a benchmark time that stood until Katsuta produced an impressive run to pip the Belgian by 1.2s, to win the stage, which came as a surprise to the Toyota driver.

“To be honest I felt a bad feeling in the car, so I didn’t expect it to be good. I need to change my style a bit and there were some surprises on the stage,” said Katsuta, who moved to second overall 0.8s behind overnight rally leader Neuville.

Tanak emerged with the third fastest time, 2.1s adrift and 0.9s slower than Neuville. The Estonian however wasn’t happy behind the wheel of his i20 N.

Photo by: Toyota Racing

“I struggle to work in the car, but I will try. It’s not a good time, we are losing. There is nothing positive,” said Tanak.

Evans also struggled for confidence with the front end of his Toyota on his way to reaching the stage end, 3.9s shy of the pace.

M-Sport’s Fourmaux, who gambled on taking only one spare, and rally favourite Rovanpera posted an identical time as they dropped 5.7s.

Ogier competing in his first gravel event since Acropolis last year, admitted “he was not really on it” as the Frenchman could only post the seventh-best time, ahead of Hyundai’s Sordo.

The stage was interrupted by rolls for WRC2 runners Pepe Lopez and Yuki Yamamoto.

The road-cleaning effect came into force on stage 3 [Lousa,12.28km] which was much drier and more technical than the previous test.

Sordo faced the best of the road conditions and, combined with an impressive drive, the Spaniard lit up the timing screens with a time 3.2s faster than Rovanpera, which was enough to win the stage.

“The first stage was really bad for me, it was a case of come back or stay at home,” said Sordo.

Rovanpera was continuing to battle with his GR Yaris and was already focussing on finding improvements for the afternoon loop.

Tanak managed to haul his i20N to third fastest despite feeling the effects of road-cleaning, edging Katsuta by 0.6s. Katsuta revealed at the stage end that he made a mistake at the start of the test that cost him time, but it didn’t stop him from taking the overall lead.

Evans found more from the front end of his car and did well to only drop 5.4s considering his road position. He was quicker than Ogier [+7.0s] and title rival Neuville, who faced the toughest of the conditions.

Buoyed by his stage win, Sordo again delivered in stage four [Gois, 14.30km]. The Hyundai driver managed to pip Rovanpera for the second consecutive test, this time by 1.8s to claim the stage win and climb to fifth overall.

“I can do these two stages all day. I am happy with the car, honestly on the first stage, it was me,” said Sordo. “The car is great, I have a good feeling. Hats off to the guys at Hyundai.”

Rovanpera was able to move into third overall ahead of Neuville but was still perplexed by his pace, stating: “It was better in these conditions, I don’t know why but we were struggling with the balance of the car. There was quite a lot of understeer.”

He wasn’t the only Toyota driver suffering as Evans reported problems trying to rotate his car while Ogier said his car was “too lazy”. The pair clocked times good enough for eighth and fourth respectively. The 8.6s time loss for Evans dropped the Welshman three positions to eighth overall.

In comparison, Neuville, who started first on the road ahead of Evans, was 2.4s faster than his rival despite battling with tyre wear.

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

At the front of the field, Katsuta was 0.4s faster than Tanak which pushed his rally lead out to 1.9s.

The final stage of the loop witnessed an inspired performance from Neuville, who elected to bolt on four soft tyres in boiling hot conditions. A committed run yielded a stage win, 2.2s faster than Rovanpera, which hauled the Belgian from fourth to second overall.

Katsuta held onto his rally lead after claiming a time 0.1s slower, while Ogier performed admirably without an intercom system to drop only 3.0s. Sordo’s run of form was halted by a hybrid issue that cost him a position, having posted the sixth fastest behind team-mate Tanak. Evans, whose handling struggles continued, ceded a further 7.3s.

The crews will take in a tyre fitting zone before repeating the four stages this afternoon.

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