Tanak leads from chasing Rovanpera on Friday morning

Tanak produced an impressive showing in his M-Sport Ford Puma, winning one of the three morning stages to lead Toyota’s Rovanpera by 3.0s.

Dani Sordo led Hyundai’s effort completing the loop in third, 3.6s adrift, but ahead of team-mate Thierry Neuville, 14.6s back, and road sweeper Elfyn Evans, who is 18.0s off. Pierre-Louis Loubet and Esapekka Lappi completed the Rally1 field after Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta retried with an electrical issue.

Road cleaning was always going to be a factor for the leading runners and so it proved on the opening gravel stage.

M-Sport’s Loubet made the most of the road conditions, starting last of the Rally1 runners, as the Frenchman set the fastest times to claim a fourth career WRC stage win and the early rally lead.

Hyundai’s Sordo, who was ahead of Loubet on the road, was 0.3s slower, but it was M-Sport’s Tanak, who produced arguably the most impressive time. The 2019 world champion was only 2.3s adrift despite starting third on the road, describing his Ford Puma’s ride as like a «wooden horse» across the rough gravel.

Rovanpera was 0.3s shy of Tanak but the Toyota driver was faster than Katsuta — hampered by an electrical issue — Lappi and Neuville, who all started further down the road order. Croatia winner Evans felt the brunt of the road cleaning duties and subsequently dropped 7.9s.

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: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Tanak continued his strong start in the next test (Gois -19.33km) to take the stage win and move into the outright rally lead by 0.5s. The time was made even more eye-catching by the fact his vision was slightly impaired by water leaking onto his Puma’s windscreen which combined with the dust.

«Generally I was struggling a bit with the rhythm — I had water leaking on my windscreen all the time and the dust was sticking [to it],» Tanak said.

Sordo maintained second overall by clocking the second fastest time, with Katsuta third fastest despite a continuation of the electrical fault.

After winning the first stage, Loubet felt he’d been too careful at the start of the stage which contributed to a 7.5s time loss, which dropped him to third overall.

Rovanpera was also unable to match Tanak’s pace as the Finn shipped 5.5s having struggled with understeer on the much faster stage.

The world champion wasn’t the only driver struggling for pace as team-mate Evans, along with the Hyundai duo of Lappi and Neuville completed the timesheet.

«I took a lot of care of the tyres at the end of the stage but we had a vibration on the rear-left so I thought one was delaminating. It’s very loose and we have to take care of the tyres,» said Neuville.

The Rally1 field was reduced to seven cars at the start of stage three (Arganil — 18.72km). The suspected alternator issue for Katsuta proved terminal which left the Japanese driver stranded on the road section before the test.

«Huge disappointment but tomorrow is coming. I am speechless,» said Katsuta.

Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

However, there was some joy for Toyota as Rovanpera won the stage, benefitting from a set-up tweak before the test. The Finn was 2.8s faster than Tanak, moving to second outright 3.0s behind the Ford driver.

Evans also enjoyed his best stage of the event today to end up only 4.1s slower than Rovanpera, while Sordo dropped to third overall after losing 5.9s. The sister Hyundais of Neuville and Lappi were unable to threaten the leading pace.

There was drama for early leader Loubet after his Puma suffered a fire at the rear right corner of the car. The Frenchman had his door open as he crossed the finish line before successfully putting out the fire.

«There was fire one kilometre from the end,» said Loubet before reaching the tyre fitting zone. «It is a shame because I lost a bit of time at the end but before that pace was good. It is a shame we don’t have luck this year.»

Adrien Fourmaux led the 44-car WRC2 class by 6.1s from 2021 champion Andreas Mikkelsen, while the returning Kris Meeke was eighth in the category.

The crews will head to a remote tyre fitting zone before taking on five more stages this afternoon.

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