Estonia’s Ott Tänak, chasing his third victory in four events on the FIA World Rally Championship, will take the lead into the penultimate day of Repco Rally New Zealand after a day of drama and fluctuating fortunes.
Tänak was the last of five lead changes on the longest day of the WRC this year, with 159km of competitive racing comprising double runs through the icon Whaanga Coast and two stages through Te Akau South and North.
The 34-year-old, who won recent back-to-back WRC events in Finland and Belgium, leads a tight battle in the WRC1 class where the leading four drivers are within seven seconds after a long day that started at5.45am and returned to the Auckland waterfront base at 7.45pm.
The field battled the long stages, and testing weather conditions with rain providing a significant challenge along with tyre wear on the day where only refuelling was allowed.
Tänak (Hyundai) leads by just 0.2s from a trio of Toyota Gazoo Racing rivals led by Great Britain’s Elfyn Evans, 6.7s to eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier and 7.2s to championship leader Kalle Rovanperä.
“It was quite good today with no mistakes so I was quite happy,” said Rovanperä. “It was loose in some places and our tyre is definitely done but overall ok.:
Teammate Ogier, who had worked his way into the lead before losing way on the final stage with wearing tyres and handling, after he knocked his rear spoiler off on the penultimate stage.
“Obviously we lost a lot without wings on the last lap,” said the disappointed former champion.
Highlight for New Zealand fans comes in the WRC2 class where Hayden Paddon built up a lead of over one minute on Skoda’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz (POL), currently fourth in the competition standings, with Supercars star Shane van Gisbergen enjoying his first WRC rally outing to be third, 35 seconds back.
Tänak was initially dominant in his Hyundai i20 N and opened-up a slender advantage as heavy downpours plagued the morning’s stages on gravel roads in the Waikato Region.
When the rain clouds briefly parted ahead of the second pass of Whaanga Coast, however, the Estonian driver was hampered by an early road position and struggled for traction as the surface dried and became loose.
He was passed by Toyota Gazoo Racing star Elfyn Evans as well as the Welshman’s part-time colleague Ogier who, aided by a lower starting position, climbed from fifth to first overall after outpacing the entire field by 8.2sec while managing his soft compound Pirelli rubber to perfection.
Wet weather returned for the closing two speed tests and Ogier soon came unstuck – brushing a tree branch with the rear end of his Yaris which ripped the upper half of the spoiler from the car.
That enabled Tänak to crank up the pressure and he stormed back in front with a stage win on the final test as Ogier struggled with reduced rear aero, ending 6.7sec adrift of the lead. Evans’ consistency was rewarded and he swooped into the runner-up spot – trailing the leader by just two-tenths of a second.
“The conditions were actually not so bad,” said Tänak. We were definitely very lucky to get the day in today otherwise like we saw on the long stage, where Seb took like 20 seconds off us in the dry, it would have been all stages like this.
“The roads are really fun but they are difficult to get in the rhythm. You really need to have good confidence to have a good flow. It seems like the weather is coming in quite strong tomorrow so I guess, a few seconds at the moment doesn’t mean anything.”
Road-opening duties eventually played to Rovanperä’s advantage as the Toyota hotshot avoided the worst of a heavy shower on the penultimate stage, to finish just 0.5sec behind Ogier in fourth overall.
M-Sport Ford’s pair were initially dominant as Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith locked out the top-two after the opener. Things quickly turned sour, however, when Breen retired after sliding down a banking on the same corner which caught out the great Colin McRae in 2002.
Greensmith was left flying the flag for the British squad and he coped admirably to end the day 36.6sec back from Rovanperä in fifth, after he won his first-ever gravel stage in the WRC with the mornng pass through Whaanga Coast.
Paddon was pleased with his efforts, moving into the top-10 overall.
“We had a bad tyre on the right rear and front left – but overall it was a good day and we were not taking risks, but we had to work for it because the conditions were tough,” said the Hyundai driver.
Van Gisbergen, realising a long-held dream of competing at a major rally, enjoyed the massive first-day challenge.
“Well I didn’t crash. It was an awesome day and I am living my dream,” he said. “I would like to make less mistakes tomorrow but overall it was really cool and an awesome day, especially that second pass through Whaanga Coast.”
Competitors journey north of rally base Auckland on Saturday for double runs through Kaipara Hills (15.83km), Puhoi (22.50km) and Komokoriki (5.81km). A return to Auckland for service separates the loops, which add up to 88.28km.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N 1hr 36min 48.6sec
2. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +0.2sec
3. S Ogier / B Veillas FRA Toyota GR Yaris +6.7sec
4. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +7.2sec
5. G Greensmith / J Andersson GBR Ford Puma +43.8sec
6. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +45.6sec