Belgian driver overcomes late scare to lead the legendary Acropolis Rally overnight.
Thierry Neuville kept a charging Sébastien Ogier at bay to lead EKO Acropolis Rally Greece on Friday night – overcoming a late technical drama in the process.
Just 2.8sec blanketed the duelling duo after the first full day of competition at the legendary Acropolis’ 70th edition. Despite winning just one of the five gruelling gravel road tests, Neuville led from start to finish.
The Hyundai i20 N driver passed overnight pacesetter Kalle Rovanperä by going fastest through the Loutraki opener and had pulled out a 7.4sec buffer over Toyota rival Ogier going into the 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 28.32km 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 the throttle, so I was struggling a lot.
“It was stressful, also because it was a challenging stage. From the first kilometre 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, back in action for the first time since June, was poised to steal the late lead but could only claw back 5.0sec after low-hanging tree branches severed his GR Yaris’ rear wing. He believes tyre strategy will be key in Saturday’s punishing leg, which boasts over 140km of competition.
“I felt that my rear wing was missing but I had no idea why,” he said. “It’s going to be a bit like this all weekend, what the tyre differences are between us, but it’s a big day tomorrow.”
Rovanperä scored one stage win as the rally threaded up the country following Thursday’s spectacular start in Athens. Opening the road, he was hindered by loose stones on the drying surface and trailed colleague Ogier by 25.5sec at close of play.
Just 5.5sec behind was Elfyn Evans, who struggled to make an impact despite this fixture being crucial in his bid to hunt down championship leader Rovanperä. A slow puncture in SS2 caused the Welshman minor time loss and his car, like team-mate Ogier’s, also lost its rear wing in the finale.
Evans leapfrogged Esapekka Lappi in Elatia to claim fourth overall by 1.1sec, the latter forced to err on the side of caution after nursing a water leak on his Hyundai for much of the afternoon.
A stall in the final stage saw i20 N man Dani Sordo slip from fifth to seventh but the Spaniard’s frustrations were nothing compared with those of Ott Tänak, who sat ninth behind Nikolay Gryazin in an M-Sport Ford Puma.
Tänak checked out of the mid-leg tyre fitting zone 22 minutes late after repairing a technical fault, incurring a 3min 40sec time penalty. He reported the issue to be similar to that which ruled out his colleague Pierre-Louis Loubet, who retired before the day’s first stage citing “temperature issues”. There were at least some positives the Estonian could take from the day, though, as he won two special stages.
Yohan Rossel topped the WRC2 leaderboard and completed the top 10 in a Citroën C3 Rally2. The Frenchman inherited the position late in the day after Adrien Fourmaux, previous leader of the category, stopped to change a wheel.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 55m 10.4s
2. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +2.8s
3. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +25.5s
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +31.0s
5. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N +32.1s
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +41.7s
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