Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville (above) kept a charging Sebastien Ogier at bay to lead WRC Acropolis Rally Greece after Friday’s opening leg, the Belgian overcoming a late technical drama in the process.
Just 2.8s separated Neuville from Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Ogier after the first full day of competition at the legendary Acropolis’s 70th edition. And despite winning just one of the five grueling gravel road tests that made up Friday’s 63.37 competitive miles, he led the day from start to finish.
The Hyundai i20 N Rally1 driver passed overnight leader Kalle Rovanpera, who’d set the pace on Thursday evening’s rally-opening, 0.92-mile super special stage in Athens, by going fastest through Friday morning’s Loutraki opener. Pushing on, Neuville had pulled out a 7.4s buffer over Ogier’s GR Yaris Rally1 going into the day’s final stage in Elatia, but his hard work was very nearly in vain as a mechanical problem, suspected to be transmission related, hampered him throughout the 17.6-mile blast.
“The rear diff was slipping all the time and I couldn’t go on full-throttle for first, second and third gear,” Neuville explained. “I was constantly losing time and I couldn’t rotate the car on throttle, so I was struggling a lot.
“It was stressful, also because it was a challenging stage. From the first kilometer I could hear the noise from the rear diff and I was worried that I couldn’t go to the end, but we managed.”
Ogier, who’s running a limited schedule in 2023 and is back in action for the first time since June, was poised to steal the lead late, but could only claw back 5.0s after low-hanging tree branches removed his Yaris’s rear wing. The eight-time WRC champ believes tire strategy will be key in Saturday’s punishing leg, which boasts almost 90 miles of competition.
“I felt that my rear wing was missing, but I had no idea why,” he recalled. “It’s going to be a bit like this all weekend — what the tire differences are between us — but it’s a big day tomorrow.”
Sebastien Ogier (above, rear wing still intact…) closed to within 2.8s of rally leader Thierry Neuville. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT
GR Yaris Rally 1 driver Rovanpera earned one stage win as the rally threaded up the country following Thursday’s spectacular start in Greece’s capital city. Opening the road, the reigning WRC champ and 2023 points leader was hindered by loose stones as the surface dried after torrential rains in the days leading up to the event and trailed teammate Ogier by 25.5s at the end of Friday.
Just 5.5s behind was Elfyn Evans, who struggled to make an impact despite this rally being crucial in his bid to hunt down teammate Rovanpera in the championship points battle. A slow puncture in the morning’s first stage caused the Welshman minor time loss and he, like teammate Ogier, also lost his Yaris’s rear wing in the final stage.
Evans leapfrogged Esapekka Lappi in the Elatia closer to hold fourth overall by just 1.1s after the Hyundai driver was forced to err on the side of caution after nursing a water leak for much of the afternoon.
A stall in the final stage saw Hyundai’s other entry, Dani Sordo, slip from fifth to seventh on the leaderbaord, but the Spaniard’s frustrations were nothing compared with those of Ott Tanak, who sat ninth overall in his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1.
Tanak checked out of the mid-leg tire fitting zone 22 minutes late after repairing a technical fault and incurred a 3m40s time penalty as a result. Although coy on the details, he believed the issue was similar to the one which ruled out his M-Sport Ford teammate, Pierre-Louis Loubet, who retired before the day’s first stage citing “temperature issues.” But there were at least some positives the Estonian could take from the day, as he won two special stages in his Puma.
M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tanak has the speed, but a tech issue has put him out of contention.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Yohan Rossel stormed to the front of the class field after rival Adrien Fourmaux suffered heartbreak late in the leg.
Fourmaux, who drives a Ford Fiesta Mk2 for M-Sport Ford, was undoubtedly the star performer on what proved to be a testing day for several of the WRC2 category’s regular front-runners.
His consistency appeared to be paying off as he carried an eight-second lead into the penultimate stage, but a pesky rock on the start line dealt the Frenchman front-left tire damage and his advantage was sliced to just 0.9s.
Worse was to come on the Elatia finale, however, in the form of another puncture. Fourmaux and Alex Coria opted to perform a mid-stage wheel change, dropping almost two minutes and handing the class lead to compatriot Yohan Rossel.
Rossel didn’t win any stages aboard his Citroen C3 Rally2, but headed Skoda Fabia RS driver Gus Greensmith by 6.8s at the overnight halt.
Adrien Fourmaux was WRC2’s star of the day until a pair of late punctures.
WRC Acropolis Rally Greece, leading positions after Day One, SS6
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 55m10.4s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2.8s
3 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +25.5s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +31.0s
5 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +32.1s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +41.7s
7 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +48.6s
8 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2, non-points) +3m16.7s
9 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Puma Rally1) +3m34.5s
10 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +3m46.3s
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