WRC part-timer Mikkelsen leads Rally Poland after Friday’s super-fast opener

Hyundai WRC part-timer Andreas Mikkelsen (above) found himself leading an FIA World Rally Championship round for the first time since 2019, heading Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera by just 1.8s after Friday’s opening leg of Rally Poland.

Just 7.7s covered the leading five drivers at the end of a frantic opening day on super-fast gravel roads. Temperatures touched a humid 85°F in northern Poland, although two stage cancellations meant that tire wear was not much of a concern, even for those running the soft-compound Pirelli rubber.

It’s only Mikkelsen’s third start of the 2024 WRC season, but he set the early pace on an event he’s excelled at in the past, including an overall win with VW in 2016. The Norwegian stormed into the lead on the morning’s opening stage, the 18.27-mile Stanczyki 1, as his title-chasing Hyundai teammate, Ott Tanak — who’d led following Thursday evening’s short super special — retired with front-end damage to his i20 N Rally1 caused by an unavoidable impact with a deer.


Mikkelsen built a buffer of 7.4s, but came under attack from Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 drivers Kalle Rovanpera and Elfyn Evans on the repeated afternoon loop when his later starting position offered less of an advantage on tracks already swept clear of loose gravel.

“I am happy with my day,” said Mikkelsen, who last led a WRC rally in Turkey in 2019. “I was too careful on the first stage after regroup, so we will try to adjust for tomorrow.”

Reigning WRC champ Rovanpera has elected to run a limited WRC program in 2024, and only found out he’d be taking on one of the WRC’s fastest events, rather than spending the weekend jet-skiing, when Toyota’s other potent part-timer, Sebastien Ogier, was involved in a minor collision during Tuesday’s recce day.  

Still the 23-year-old Finn produced one of the drives of the day, pipping Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Evans in the final stage to head the Welshman by two-tenths of a second. Despite having less than ideal pre-event preparations, Rovanpera even collected two stage wins on an event making its first appearance on the WRC calendar since 2017.

“It’s quite funny; last night I was watching a [reconnaissance] video and I fell asleep at the laptop,” said Rovanpera. “I think we did a good job today [considering] the situation we are in.”

A late call-up for Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera hasn’t fazed the reigning WRC champ, who sits a close second overall. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Evans posted top-three times for all but two stages and is currently poised to close thepoints  gap to title rivals Tanak and Thierry Neuville, whom he trailed coming into this seventh round of the season. Hyundai’s Neuville, who currently leads the championship, faced slippery conditions running first on the road and ended the leg down in seventh overall.

Martins Sesks made a stunning start to his Rally1 debut, stopping the clock just 0.3s adrift of Mikkelsen’s time on the morning’s opening stage and holding second overall until midday. Driving a non-hybrid Ford Puma Rally1, the 24-year-old Latvian fell to fifth in the afternoon, trailing full-time M-Sport Ford driver Adrien Fourmaux (in a more powerful, full-hybrid-spec Puma) by 0.2s after yielding position to the Frenchman in the day’s final stage.

Rally1 debutant Martins Sesks’ fifth place is even more impressive given that his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 is running in non-hybrid spec. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Gregoire Munster, also driving a full-spec Puma, ended 21.3s adrift of the lead in sixth, with Neuville a further 8.5s behind. Eighth and last of the Rally1 machines went to Takamoto Katsuta, who struggled to find a comfortable rhythm in his GR Yaris.

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Sami Pajari withstood the pressure of home hero Kajetan Kajetanowicz to build an 8.9s lead after Friday’s opening leg.

Pajari, the WRC2 winner last time out on Rally Italy, stormed ahead of overnight class pacesetter Oliver Solberg on Friday’s first stage and retained the top spot for the day’s entirety.

The Finn, driving a Toyota GR Yaris Rally2, had managed to build an 11.1s gap between himself and Kajetanowicz after the afternoon’s opening stage, but some committed and crowd-pleasing driving by Poland’s Kajetanowicz in the closing stages brought the deficit back down to single figures.

“It’s been a very good day for us,” said Pajari, who also held ninth in the rally’s overall standings overall. “So far it is going really well.”

Sami Pajari carried on where he’d left off at Rally Italy – leading the WRC2 class in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally2. McKlein/Motorsport Images

Crews face seven more super-fast stages covering 77.11miles on Saturday’s second leg, including a third pass over the short super special stage next to Rally Poland’s Mikołajki base.

WRC Rally Poland, positions after Leg One, SS8
1 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 59m43.7s
2 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1.8s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2.0s
4 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +7.5s
5 Martins Sesks/Renars Francis (Ford Puma Rally1, non-hybrid) +7.7s
6 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +21.3s
7 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +29.8s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +32.3s
9 Sami Pajari/Enni Malkonen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 – WRC2 leader) +2m15.6s
10 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +2m24.5s

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Story originally appeared on Racer