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WRC Rally Poland

WRC Poland: Mikkelsen leads as spectator issues cancels stage seven

Mikkelsen remains on top in an interrupted Rally Poland

Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen ended Friday leading an interrupted Rally Poland after World Rally Championship organisers were forced to cancel two stages due to spectator controlling issues.

Mikkelsen won two of the three morning stages to open up a 7.4s lead before briefly losing the advantage to Toyota’s reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera. After recording his first stage wins since 2019, Mikkelsen managed to reclaim the advantage to end the day 1.8s ahead of the Finn.

Organisers were forced to step in to cancel stage three [Wieliczki] this morning and stage seven [Olecko] in the afternoon, after sections of spectators were standing in dangerous positions.

Amid the truncated proceedings, Toyota’s Evans managed to successfully limit the damage of his elevated road position to emerge as Mikkelsen’s nearest rival up until the final stage, where he fell to third, 0.2s behind Rovanpera

Rovanpera was frustrated for much of the day by a lack of refined pacenotes following a rushed preparation for the event as a last-minute stand in for injured team-mate Sebastien Ogier.

M-Sport's Adrien Fourmaux will head into Saturday sitting fourth [+7.5s] after leapfrogging his Rally1 debutant team-mate Martins Sesks, who produced arguably the drive of the day to claim fifth [+7.7s], piloting a non-hybrid powered Ford Puma Rally1.

Gregoire Munster [+21.3s], championship leader Thierry Neuville [+29.8s], who opened the gravel roads, and Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta [+32.3s] rounded out the top eight.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak retired from the lead after a collision with a deer on stage two.

Friday afternoon began with the Mikolajki service park receiving a storm warning, but conditions remained hot and dry heading into stage five [Stanczyki 29.40km].

Tyre choice proved to be crucial as the second pass through the stage created a much more abrasive surface than expected.

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Tomasz Kalinski

Toyota appeared best set up for the stage after its drivers elected to take two hard tyres in their tyre packages. Rally leader Mikkelsen also opted for that strategy but it wasn't enough for the Norwegian to protect his advantage at the front.

Mikkelsen struggled with soft tyres on the rear of his i20 N and dropped 14.4s which coincided with Rovanpera delivering his best drive of the rally to date to win the stage to leap from fourth to the rally lead by 0.2s.

The Finn, who had a rushed recce and not the most refined pacenotes, benefitted from having already made one pass through the stage.

"It's definitely much more fun in the afternoon when I know where I'm going," said Rovanpera.

Rovanpera claimed the stage win by a margin of 4.7s from Evans, who dropped to third overall, 2.4s adrift.

Sesks continued his charge posting the third quickest time, 8.1s slower than Rovanpera, to sit third overall.

Martins Sesks, Renars Francis, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Martins Sesks, Renars Francis, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: Tomasz Kalinski

Those running four soft tyres struggled to reach the stage end with visibly worn rubber. Fourmaux was fourth fastest ahead of the improving Katsuta, with Neuville dropping 12.2s in sixth having been affected by road cleaning.

The rally lead changed hands again after a red flag interrupted stage six [Wieliczki 12.90km]. Organisers were forced to cancel the same test in the morning due to spectator safety issues.

The stoppage came while Mikkelsen was in the stage which meant the former rally leader had to complete in road mode. Although frustrated by the red flag, the notional time actually put him back in the rally lead by two seconds from Evans.

Neuville lit up the timing screens to win the stage, replicating his stage-topping time before it was cancelled in the morning. The Belgian made the most of his cleanest run of the day to pip Katsuta and Evans by 0.2s. The time brought Neuville within 8.8s of Munster sitting in fifth overall.

Evans' effort elevated the Welshman ahead of Rovanpera by a tenth, but the latter was again frustrated by his lack of refined pacenotes.

Organisers again had to intervene by cancelling stage seven [Olecko 13.20km] due to small sections of spectators standing in dangerous positions.

The stage was halted after Fourmaux, Evans and Neuville passed through the test with the former topping the times.

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Controlling spectators was an issue the last time the WRC visited Poland back in 2017 which resulted in the event dropping off the calendar. Poland's return to the calendar this year is a one-off.

"Clear decisions are being made in the name of safety," WRC event director Simon Larkin told Aotorsport.com.

"One of the unintended consequences of cancelling stages is that messaging does get out saying 'don't be an idiot' otherwise you wreck it for everyone and yourself. These people that are standing in bad positions are wrecking their own day.

"There are a lot of marshals out there and what we have seen is, for want of a better word there are a lot of professional spectators out there that know where to hide when the safety cars come through and then they flood back out of the forest.

"This is not a casual fan doing this, these people know what they are doing they want to risk their lives, but we don't want to risk their lives."

Katsuta and Rovanpera set identical times to win the day's final stage, a second run through the Mikolajki Arena Super Special. The time lifted Rovanpera to second ahead of Evans.

In WRC2, Sami Pajari led local hero Kajetan Kajetanowicz by 8.9s. Seven stages await the crews on Saturday.    

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