Ott Tänak became the fourth different Rally Turkey leader after a day of carnage that saw main Championship contenders Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier dramatically retire from the event within hours of one another.
No fewer than five crews were forced out on Saturday and, should Tänak win on Sunday afternoon; the Estonian will have put himself firmly in contention for a shot at the title with a hat-trick of wins.
Toyota team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala is just 13.1 seconds adrift in second and unlikely to challenge for victory, such are the high stakes for Tänak. Hayden Paddon has moved into the final podium position, albeit over a minute adrift of the lead.
The second full day of competition took the crews out to the west of Marmaris for two identical loops of three stages, packing in 130 kilometres of competition in a total distance of just 306 kilometres. Conditions were less rough today, making the rate of attrition surprising.
Neuville started the day at the head of the leaderboard, but in the first extended test, one of the front dampers punched its way through the bonnet, forcing the Belgian to limp through the stage, losing him over three minutes in the process.
The crew worked tirelessly to make temporary repairs on the road section, but it never appeared realistic to be able to get through the following two stages with no front left suspension.
Adding to his gut-wrenching retirement, Ogier set the fastest time in the stage to take the lead but, just one stage later, the five-time FIA World Rally Champion broke a suspension arm.
“I thought I would never make it. We tried to put the track control arm back but the suspension wishbone was too tight in the sub-frame and I couldn’t fit it in. I fought like hell and was very close to giving up because I had no energy,” said Ogier.
While Ogier dropped less than 20 seconds in the stage and maintained a much-reduced lead, work on the road section to replace the broken suspension saw him arrive late to the start of the following stage, incurring a one-minute penalty which dropped him to fourth.
Remarkably, he was the fastest in the next stage to arrive at the mid-leg service 46.1 seconds off the lead. However, in the first stage of the afternoon, the Frenchman went off the road, handing the lead to Tänak in the process. Both Neuville and Ogier look set to re-join under Rally 2 regulations tomorrow, the fight for critical Power Stage points their sole focus.
Tänak admitted to not being the fastest driver on the rally, but pre-event all the crews predicted it would be an event at which you would need to use the head, not the foot.
The Estonian started the day fifth and, with the carnage around him, quietly drove to the second position by the mid-leg service, despite a steering column issue. This afternoon he had a concern with a rear damper but took the lead from Andreas Mikkelsen in the first of the repeated stages when the Norwegian had a front differential problem that saw him spin, stall and have to continue with rear-wheel drive only.
He dropped to fourth over a minute adrift of the lead, picked up road penalties for lateness to the next stage and overnights fifth, now six and a half minutes behind. Latvala has moved from fourth last night to second; he had a problem with the engine stalling in hairpins, a puncture and hydraulic pressure issue.
However, he overcame all of it to set the fastest time in the penultimate stage of the day to overnight one-two for Toyota. Hayden Paddon has tried to drive cleanly all event, and it has rewarded the Kiwi with third position, now the lead Hyundai driver.
Teemu Suninen is fourth for M-Sport, the young Finn always wanting more from himself but admitting he would be happy with the result at the end of the rally.
Behind fifth-placed Mikkelsen, the popular privateer and WRC returnee Henning Solberg is sixth in a Škoda Fabia R5; due to the rate of attrition today. He heads Elfyn Evans, who was forced to undertake his own mid-day service, due to the amount of work that had to be done on Ogier’s car.
It was just not just Neuville and Ogier who hit problems today. Mads Østberg was forced out in the first stage with a turbo problem, and Esapekka Lappi went off the road in SS10. The car was undamaged but immovable and bizarrely after 20 minutes of being beached on the edge of the road, then slipped forward down the hill, on its own, damaging the front end and making it impossible to restart tomorrow.
Craig Breen suffered more disappointment today when smoke started pouring into his car. Despite stopping several times to check there was no fire, they reached the end of the stage only for the car to burst into flames, destroying it. Both Craig and co-driver Scott Martin were not injured.
Jan Kopecky is eighth overall and also heads the FIA WRC 2 Championship. He has recovered from yesterday’s time loss with punctures and now leads ninth-placed Simone Tempestini by 44.5 seconds in the category.
Should the Czech Škoda driver take the win, it will be a remarkable fifth win from five events.
Championship leader Emil Bergkvist closed on the FIA Junior WRC title after leading the category at Rally Turkey on Saturday night.
He was third overnight but moved his Ford Fiesta R2 to the top of the standings in the third and final stage of this morning. His 28sec advantage was trimmed to just 4.7sec in the day’s final test by Ken Torn but the impetus remains with the Swede.
“It’s been a very tough day and we’re very lucky to be here without any problems. We’re just driving to survive but there are still four more stages to go tomorrow and we’re simply aiming for the finish line,” said Bergkvist.
The rocky gravel tracks close to Marmaris on the Turkish Riviera proved just as tough as yesterday’s opening leg but Torn maintained second throughout the day, eating into Bergkvist’s advantage in the final test to set up an exciting finale tomorrow.
Less fortunate was Germany’s Julius Tannert. He led last night but three punctures and a lack of brakes cost valuable minutes and he plunged down the order to seventh.
Just 35 competitive kilometres remain on Sunday but, with the conditions the way they have been on one of the toughest events in years, anything could still happen.
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