Neuville extends lead over Ogier as Evans hits trouble

Overnight leader Neuville lost the rally lead to Toyota’s Ogier in the day’s opening gravel test but fought back to build up a 10.9s margin at the end of the Saturday morning loop.

Championship leader Kalle Rovanpera meanwhile boosted his victory hopes with two impressive stage wins to sit 23.7s adrift in third.

However, Rovanpera’s nearest championship rival and team-mate, Evans was forced to stop on a road section to attempt a fix on his GR Yaris that had developed a problem, dropping the Welshman to fifth (+1m54.4s).

Hyundai’s Dani Sordo climbed to fourth, while a puncture demoted team-mate Esapekka Lappi to seventh, behind Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta. However Lappi remains ahead of Ott Tanak in the sole remaining M-Sport Ford Puma after his maladies on Friday.

Saturday’s stages bore the brunt of the torrential rain of Storm Daniel earlier this week and the effects of this extreme water event were clearly visible.

The first test, Pavliani (24.25km), held in the Greek mountains, featured treacherous wet and muddy sections more reminiscent of Safari Rally Kenya.

The tricky conditions played into Rovanpera’s hands as the reigning world champion excelled to claim his first stage win of the event. The Finn was 1.3s faster than his eight-time champion counterpart Ogier, who made a significant move in the battle for victory.

Ogier managed to take 10.6s out of rally leader Neuville to transform a 2.8s deficit into the rally lead, despite suffering a moment in the stage.

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

«A difficult stage, the mud in the middle was really quite challenging,» said Ogier. «We were aquaplaning and there were some big stones, we were lucky not to hit them with the wheel.»

Neuville was at a loss to explain the pace deficit when he reached the stage end, stating: «I had a good stage. I couldn’t really do more, to be honest.»

Evans also found the going tough, clocking a time 0.8s slower than Neuville, but it was enough to hold onto fourth overall.

Team-mate Katsuta appeared on course to deliver a strong time, having been up on the splits compared to M-Sport’s Tanak, but a spin at the 18km mark cost him 30s. Tanak was fifth fastest although the Estonian reported that his Ford Puma was down on power.

However, Hyundai’s Lappi fared even worse as a broken handbrake resulted in the Finn losing 34.1s, but he maintained fifth by 3.3s from team-mate Sordo.

Lappi’s misfortune continued in stage eight (Karoutes, 28.49km), the longest of the rally and the first completely bone-dry gravel route of the event to date.

Contact with a sizeable rock caused a puncture, costing Lappi 2m37.5s and dropping the Hyundai driver from fifth to seventh in the standings.

There was however joy for Hyundai as Neuville issued an impressive response to losing the rally lead. The Belgian’s push was rewarded with a stage win, but more importantly, he was 9.8s faster than Ogier, and reclaimed the rally lead by 2.0s.

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

Ogier’s time loss was inflated by a rare mistake from the Frenchman, courtesy of a half spin and a stall at a junction towards the end of the test.

After winning stage seven, Rovanpera struggled in the contrasting dry and dusty conditions of stage eight, posting the fourth fastest time, 1.3s adrift of Evans.

The drama continued in stage nine, but it was Evans who made the headlines. The Welshman suddenly slowed midway through the incredibly rough Eleftherochori 18.02km test, before switching to EV mode.

Evans managed to limp to the stage end, losing more than a minute in the process, but completed the journey back to service.

As Evans struggled, team-mate Rovanpera produced a blistering pace in challenging conditions to claim a second stage win.

Neuville almost matched the Finn’s speed and was just 1.5s slower, but crucially the 2022 Acropolis winner took an 8.9s chunk out of rival Ogier, who admitted that «maybe I was not daring to risk enough».

Neuville will now take a 10.9s lead over Ogier into this afternoon’s second pass of the stages.

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