WRC title rivals Thierry Neuville, and Sébastien Ogier was separated by 0.3sec for the lead of Rally Turkey on Friday night after a gripping and surprising opening leg.
Championship leader Neuville held the edge in his Hyundai i20 over world champion Ogier’s Ford Fiesta after a gruelling day on dusty rock-strewn tracks near Marmaris on the Turkish Riviera.
That either was at the head of the leaderboard was a significant shock given the handicap of starting first and second in the running order. Deep sand and gravel covered the roads, which both swept clean to leave more grip and a faster line for those behind.
Belgian Neuville labelled his start position a ‘disaster’ but was inside the top six all day. He won two of the six speed tests and took the lead in the final kilometres when the long-time leader and team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen lost vital seconds due to worn tyres.
He overshot a bend in the last special stage but held off a determined Ogier.
“We’re involved in a fantastic fight for the leading positions which is a great way to start this new event,” said Neuville. “The conditions we faced today were really tough. These roads have been a completely different challenge to any other we’ve faced this season.”
Like most, Ogier was hampered by hanging dust in this morning’s opening Çetibeli stage. He soared from seventh to second with a crushing performance to win this afternoon’s repeat, the longest stage of the rally and one regarded as the toughest of the season.
Mikkelsen was 2.3sec behind Ogier. He led after last night’s short curtain-raiser in the streets of Marmaris and regained top spot after losing it for two stages, before rough roads and temperatures exceeding 30°C took their toll on his tyres.
Jari-Matti Latvala struggled for grip in the rougher sections in his Toyota Yaris but held fourth and was well in touch at 16.3sec off the lead.
Team-mate Ott Tänak complained of similar traction problems but climbed from ninth to fifth in the final two stages.
Craig Breen led for two stages in his Citroën C3 this morning, but a flat tyre relegated the distraught Irishman to eighth.
Elfyn Evans and Mads Østberg both retired in the penultimate stage with broken suspension. Evans lost time earlier with a differential oil leak in his Fiesta while Østberg’s demise ruined a strong performance which delivered third place this morning.
FIA WRC 2
The battle in the FIA WRC 2 Championship took a surprising turn this afternoon. Jan Kopecky, leading going into the loop, picked up two punctures in the first stage and was overtaken by team-mate and series rival Pontus Tidemand.
The Swede then also had to stop to change a wheel in the same stage and the duo each dropped a position down the leaderboard, now with Tidemand ahead in second.
He then got another puncture in the following stage, swapping positions with Kopecky again, the pair then behind category leader Chris Ingram.
However, in the final stage, Tidemand stopped on the stage for unconfirmed reasons, leaving Kopecky with a 16.3s advantage over Ingram.
The FIA Junior WRC Championship reaches its thrilling climax in Turkey, and with nine drivers mathematically capable of winning this year’s title, the action is intense. Julius Tannert currently holds the advantage in his is Fiesta R2, the German having led all day.
Saturday’s leg follows a similar format of two identical loops of three stages, split by service. The roads are smoother than today and include stunning picture postcard views of the coastline west of Marmaris. The six stages cover 130.62km.
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