Jan Kopecký has established a surprising 0.3 second lead after the first stage of Rally Deutschland, while Kris Meeke crashed out from the rally after colliding with a concrete barrier.
Meeke was only the second WRC car to enter the stage after Armin Kremer, who had a moment of his own after sliding wide and tapping the rear of his Fiesta WRC with another of the concrete barriers.
The Northern Irishman retired after crashing at the same turn as Kremer, though his mistake was through cutting the inside of the corner too aggressively rather than running wide.
The Citroën team had singled out Germany as their best chance of success for the remainder of the season, but team leader Meeke is now effectively out of the equation, facing a 10 minute penalty when returning under Rally2 regulations tomorrow.
The stage was delayed as Meeke’s wrecked C3 was towed away, and when the action resumed, Ott Tänak outclassed the WRC field with a neat, precise drive through the tight and twisty circuit in Saarbrücken, one second faster than Craig Breen.
Tänak leads the WRC class, but finds himself second overall after an astonishing drive from WRC2 veteran Kopecký, racing for the factory Skoda Motorsport team.
A tie emerged for fourth position, with Sébastien Ogier setting the same time as the second Citroën of Andreas Mikkelsen, the pair 1.9 seconds off the pace set by Kopecký.
Several drivers had minor brushes with the concrete barriers lining the superspecial, including eighth fastest Dani Sordo. The Spaniard, who is competing in his 150th WRC event this weekend, cracked the left-rear rim of his Hyundai i20, tapping the outside wall on a long sweeping right turn.
Two tenths off Sordo’s pace was Hyundai team-mate and championship leader Thierry Neuville, who explained that Meeke’s earlier accident changed his approach to the opening stage.
“I had no good feeling at all in this stage after what I saw with what happened to Meeke,” he said at the stage end. “The same thing happened to me in Sweden this year so I took it quite steady.
“I tried to enjoy it as it’s the first time I started a rally leading the championship. Honestly, on a stage like this, I think we did quite well.”
Further down the order, there was a three-way tie for 12th position, with the Toyota pair of Juho Hänninen and Esapekka Lappi setting the same time as Kopecký’s Skoda team-mate Pontus Tidemand.
Surprisingly for the Swede, this was only good enough for third in the WRC2 standings, beaten to 2nd in class by Yoann Bonato, a tenth of a second quicker through the 2km test.
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