Neuville, Evans tied for the lead after eight stages

Hyundai’s Neuville and Toyota’s Evans couldn’t be split after 119.74 competitive stage kilometres, ending the day with identical overall times.

Neuville had been in control of the rally, winning three of the four morning stages that contributed to a 10.1-second lead over Evans, before knocking a tyre off the rim in stage six.

This strife helped Evans close to within 0.1s before the Welshman moved 1.6s in front. However, Neuville fought back on the day’s final stage to claim a share of the lead.

Sebastien Ogier also hauled himself into the victory fight with a stunning final stage effort to close to within 6.6s of the lead pair.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak, who steadily found improvements after a slow start to the rally held fourth, 41.1s in arrears, while M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux rounded out the top five [+52.7s].

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta [+1m37.8s], Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen [+2m37.8s] and M-Sport’s Gregoire Munster [+3m07.3s] completed the Rally1 field.

The weather threw a curveball to crews at the start of the afternoon as light snow began to fall at the start of stage five [Platak, 16.63km].

Neuville was first to tackle the conditions that became increasingly wet with every pass, particularly for the Rally1 crews. The Hyundai driver admitted that the surprise weather change made the stage “dangerous” but his run was good enough to claim a fourth stage win.

“It is very dangerous to be honest as we had now information from the route note crew and, at that speed we are going, there are plenty of surprises,” said Neuville.

“You have to trust your feeling and keep you eyes wide open. Nobody told us it was going to snow in there.”

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Evans posted the second-fastest time, 1.5s slower than Neuville as the deficit to the rally leader increased to 10.1s.

Starting sixth on the road, Ogier faced the dampest conditions but was still able to post the third-fastest time, 5.4s slower than Neuville.

Fourmaux managed to close the gap to fourth to 3.9s after edging Tanak by 0.4s, despite having a moment in the stage.

In contrast, Tanak’s struggles behind the wheel of his i20 N from the morning continued into the afternoon. The Hyundai driver reported an issue with his rear tyres.

“It snowed so much and I had some issues with the rear tyre,” said Tanak. “Some set-up changes are necessary. I think the tyres don’t really matter at the moment.”

All Rally1 crews made it through the stage unscathed as Mikkelsen, Katsuta and Munster rounded out the top eight.

Dry conditions returned for stage six [Ravna Gora – Skrad, 10.13km], which proved to be the most dramatic of the day.

Rally leader Neuville clipped a rock after the second split, knocking his front-right tyre off the rim, resulting in a 10s time loss to nearest rival Evans.

“There was a stone in the road, which I tried to avoid, but I was so close and it immediately punctured the tyre,” said Neuville.

Evans took the stage win by 1.1s from Ogier, who survived running wide onto the grass at a tight left-hander.

There were signs of a Tanak recovery as the Estonian benefitted from some “small improvements” on the car to clock the third-fastest time, 2.0s slower than Evans. The Hyundai driver was 3.8s faster than Fourmaux to extend his gap over the Frenchman in the fight for fourth to 7.7s.

The battle at the front then took a twist on the penultimate stage of the day as Evans overhauled Neuville.

Evans was able to complete stage seven [Jaskovo — Mali Modrus Potok, 9.48km] with a time 1.7s faster than his Hyundai rival that arrived amid concerns that his left-rear tyre had come off the rim.

“I know I can go faster but I don’t trust, I will make mistake so have to take it slow,” said Neuville.

Ogier claimed stage seven by 0.3s to edge closer to Evans and Neuville as the Frenchman continued to hold third overall. Tanak also pulled further clear of Fourmaux as the former beat the Ford driver, who was fighting his Puma in the stage, by 5.4s.

The final stage of the day belonged to Ogier, who delivered a head-turning effort, 9.2s faster than next best Fourmaux, the latter taking advantage of a set-up tweak.

Ogier was 9.4s faster than Neuville and 11s quicker than Evans to surge into the victory fight. But Evans’ deficit to Neuville in the stage meant the pair ended the day leading the rally on identical times.

Saturday’s leg of the rally features eight stages, comprising 108.7 kilometres.

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