Points leader Neuville crashes out, Tanak leads Ogier

Tanak became embroiled in an intense fight with overnight leader Sebastien Ogier (Toyota) across the morning’s rough gravel stages with the lead changing hands twice, before Tanak ended the loop with a 3.5s lead.

However, a stage eight exit for Neuville from third position was the biggest talking point of the loop. Neuville’s retirement handed third to Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta [+1m17.5s] with Hyundai’s Dani Sordo fourth [+1m34.6s] and a frustrated Toyota’s Elfyn Evans fifth [+1m57.6s].

Sami Pajari led the WRC2 standings in sixth overall, ahead of M-Sport Rally1 driver Gregoire Munster, while M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux rejoined the rally after retiring with an electrical issue in Friday’s stage four.

The morning’s opening stage, Tempio Pausania (12.03km), was particularly challenging thanks to its low grip and sandy surface.

Those starting at the top of the order struggled although Neuville, fourth into the stage, managed to buck the trend. The Belgian delivered an impressive time that moved him ahead of team-mate Sordo and Toyota’s Katsuta into third overall.

Neuville was only 3.3s behind stage winner Tanak, who claimed his second fastest time of the rally to date despite being distracted by a loose bonnet.

It was enough to snatch the rally lead by the smallest of margins as Ogier relinquished his overnight advantage by a tenth, after losing time to a left rear tyre coming off the rim.

Ogier was the sole driver to take only one spare as part of his tyre package, which left him in danger for the remaining three stages before the tyre fitting zone.

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: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Evans was unable to match Neuville’s pace, starting one position head of his rival, as he struggled to judge the low grip. The Welshman was sixth fastest, behind top WRC2 runner Pajari.

Walking a tightrope after the tyre failure, Ogier produced an impressive fightback in stage six. He was fastest through the 22.61km Tula test to reclaim the rally lead by 2.2s from Tanak.

Ogier laid down an impressive effort 2.3s faster than his former M-Sport team-mate, who felt his maximised his run.

“Obviously, tough start with the puncture,” said Ogier. “We tried to fix it but we are not 100% sure we can still use it. I can see the wheel is bent and is leaking. It is a big fight.”

Neuville again maintained his strong start to clock a time 3.2s adrift of Ogier. The effort was made all the more impressive compared to his championship rival Evans, who appeared all at sea with his Toyota. Evans dropped 28.0s to Ogier and was clearly frustrated, reporting a “terrible feeling” behind the wheel.

Sordo also was also unable to explain his 25.7s time loss as he continued to trail Katsuta in fifth overall. Both Sordo and Evans were slower than Fourmaux, who opened the road.

The second pass through Tempio Pausania was even more challenging. The road was heavily rutted, exposing large rocks and bedrock that carried a high puncture risk.

Ogier was careful to ensure he completed the stage without further tyre damage. That objective was achieved, but he lost the rally lead in the process as Tanak pulled 2.2s ahead.

Neuville emerged with the stage victory, despite suffering an intercom issue caused by his drinking system.

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

“We have a good run, we had to be careful in there with the roughness,» said Neuville who was 0.1s faster than team-mate Tanak.

“Lots of stones in there and a big impact on the bumper, so we had to go slow in the fast sections. A small intercom issue, things got wet while drinking, but we managed to work through it.”

Sordo declared the stage “destroyed” when he carefully navigated through, while Katsuta admitted he was lucky to avoid a puncture after hitting a rock. A frustrated Evans was nine seconds adrift of Neuville, reporting “we’re not feeling at one with everything”.

The final stage of the morning, a re-run through Tula, was even rougher than the previous pass and provided the biggest drama of the rally to date.

Neuville was caught out by the incredibly rocky conditions and bounced off the road, beaching his I20 N. Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe were unhurt, but hopes of securing any Saturday points were over.

Team-mate Sordo was surprised and saddened to see Neuville off the road.

“I see Thierry and I was really disappointed, f****** hell. Honestly I don’t know why he needs to take this amount of risks,» said Sordo.

Tanak won the stage to increase his rally lead over Ogier, but admitted it felt “like he was driving without power steering” given the conditions. Ogier declared the stage as among the roughest he’d ever seen as he managed to reach the end 1.3s shy of Tanak, carrying a rear left tyre off the rim.

Evans also suffered a tyre off the rim as he took advantage of title rival Neuville’s exit. The M-Sport duo of Fourmaux and Munster were also fortunate to complete the test after suffering brake issues.

Crews will tackle four more stages this afternoon.

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