Sebastien Ogier completed a hat-trick of stage wins on SS3, to end the opening leg of Rally de Espana with a lead of 8.8sec over his Volkswagen team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala.
Ogier delivered on his promise of a flat-out approach through Friday’s three stages, and will be first on the road when the action resumes on Saturday.
“That stage was very twisty but, yeah, I’m happy,” said Ogier. “The car gave me a good feeling and helped me to keep the maximum speed through the corners. We had a good drive.”
Dani Sordo was on course to end the day second, and almost matched Ogier’s pace at the 11.7km split, but chose instead to slow his Citroen DS3 near the stage end, lose six seconds, and drop to third.
The strategic decision means he will follow both Volkswagens through Saturday’s six stages and will be able to react to any of their tactics before Sunday’s gravel stages. With the deliberate time loss however, Sordo now trails Ogier by 12.6sec.
“It’s a complicated rally, but I want to be behind Jari-Matti tomorrow so we lost a little bit of time at the yellow board,” said Sordo, who warned before the rally that drivers would take steps to avoid running first through Sunday’s loose gravel stages.
Latvala declared himself happy with his night’s work, but completing SS3 before Sordo, he knew nothing of his promotion to second when he reached the finish control. “I’m pleased to have driven consistently with no mistakes,” he said. “This last stage was very nice so I pushed a bit harder. Ogier was slightly faster but other than that I’m happy.”
Thierry Neuville ended the day fourth, 19.1sec adrift of the lead after three less than comfortable stages at the wheel of his Ford Fiesta RS. “We changed the settings a bit but still it’s not working the best,” he said. “Sometimes I’m struggling with understeer and I don’t know why. It’s strange. It was our first time in the dark here, and we found that difficult too. Tomorrow the conditions are very different.”
Eight seconds behind Neuville, Citroen’s Mikko Hirvonen rounds off the top five. “So far it’s been a really good. Everything is working fine, I’m enjoying it,” he said.
Andreas Mikkelsen and Evgeny Novikov are a close sixth and seventh, both less than one second behind Hirvonen, while a frustrated Mads Ostberg, lies almost 40sec further back in eighth.
“That stage was okay but I struggled to find the right gear,” the Norwegian explained. “We’ve got the long-ratio gearbox for this rally, because the shorter ratio one isn’t available. Considering this I think we did an okay job but there were times we weren’t in the best gear.”
World Rally Car debutant Hayden Paddon is ninth in his Ford Fiesta RS. “I’m definitely enjoying it but we’re still having a lot of understeer in the corners and that means we can’t carry the speed through,” he said. “We tried a few set-up changes between stages and I think they’ve improved things, now we will try and make some more improvements before tomorrow.”
Martin Prokop rounds off the top ten, the Czech Republic driver lucky to escape a wrong turn at the famous roundabout 4.5km from the start.
The action resumes on Saturday morning when cars leave the Salou service area from 0815hrs. The first stage, the repeat of Riudecanyes, gets underway at 0905hrs.
WRC 2: Kubica takes charge in Spain
Robert Kubica took a significant step towards securing the WRC 2 world title when he built a 51.7sec category lead in the darkness of the all-asphalt opening leg of Rally de Espana.
The Pole threw down the gauntlet when he was fastest in his Citroen DS3 RRC by 26.5sec over the opening Querol test in the hills north-east of Salou. He won El Montmell by 13.9sec and completed a clean sweep by claiming quickest time in Riudecanyes by 10.1sec.
Kubica requires a top two finish here to secure the title, but it wasn’t all plain-sailing as he suffered a handbrake problem in the final stage.
Elfyn Evans struggled through Querol with a misfiring engine in his Ford Fiesta R5. Nevertheless, the Welshman was third fastest and as the misfire cleared in the next test, he moved ahead of Sepp Wiegand and ended the night with a 25.7sec advantage over the German.
Wiegand survived a scary moment in the final test when his foot slipped off the brake of his Skoda Fabia S2000 approaching the famous roundabout almost 4.5km after the start.
Yazeed Al Rajhi lies fourth in a Fiesta RRC, a further 24.7sec behind, with the Fiesta R5s of Ireland’s Robert Barrable and Indonesia’s Subhan Aksa completing the top six.
Rashid Al Ketbi damaged the rear right suspension of his Fiesta R5 when he spun into a rock face near the end of the opening stage. He completed the test but the damage was too great to continue. Jordan’s Ala’a Rasheed also retired his similar car after the first test.