Katsuta leads while inspired Neuville impresses

Toyota driver Katsuta, who started sixth on the road, produced a solid and consistent pace throughout Friday morning’s four stages to take a 2.9-second lead over Neuville at midday tire fitting.

Reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera managed to get around an unwieldy Toyota to place third, 3.3 seconds behind, ahead of Hyundai’s Ott Tanak (+4.1) and Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier (+7.5 seconds) , who also struggled to gain confidence behind the wheel.

Dani Sordo took two stage wins and is in sixth place (+9.1s) ahead of M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux, title contender Elfyn Evans (+17.5s), Grégoire Munster (+1’26 .5 s} and WRC2 driver Oliver Solberg, who completed the top 10, (+1m40.7s).

The crews were greeted by much wetter conditions than expected for the first stage of the day (Mortagua, 18.15 km), which played into the hands of the first runners.

Sweeper Neuville set the pace with a benchmark time until Katsuta produced an impressive run to beat the Belgian by 1.2 seconds and win the stage, which came as a surprise for the Toyota driver.

“To be honest, I had a bad feeling in the car, so I didn’t expect it to be good. I have to change my style a bit and there were a few surprises on the stage,” said Katsuta., who moved up to second place overall, 0.8 seconds behind rally leader Neuville.

Tanak won with the third best time, 2.1 seconds and 0.9 seconds behind Neuville. The Estonian was not happy behind the wheel of his i20 N, however.

Photo by: Toyota Racing

“I’m having trouble working in the car, but I’ll try. This is not the right time, we are losing. There is nothing positive,” Tanak said.

Evans also struggled to gain confidence with the front of his Toyota as he headed towards the end of the stage, 3.9 seconds off the pace.

M-Sport’s Fourmaux, who had bet on a single spare wheel, and rally favorite Rovanpera set an identical time losing 5.7 seconds.

Ogier, who was competing in his first gravel event since Acropolis last year, admitted “he wasn’t really in the mix” as the Frenchman was only able to set the seventh fastest time, ahead of Hyundai’s Sordo .

The stage was interrupted by rollovers for WRC2 drivers Pepe Lopez and Yuki Yamamoto.

The road cleaning effect came into effect during stage 3 (Lousa, 12.28 km) which was much drier and more technical than the previous event.

Sordo took on the best road conditions and, combined with impressive riding, the Spaniard lit up the timing screens with a time 3.2 seconds faster than Rovanpera, which was enough to win the stage.

“The first step was really bad for me, it was a question of come back or stay home,” Sordo said.

Rovanpera continued to struggle with his GR Yaris and was already focused on finding improvements for the afternoon loop.

Tanak managed to move his i20N up to third despite the effects of road cleaning, ahead of Katsuta by 0.6 seconds. Katsuta revealed at the end of the stage that he made a mistake at the start of the stage that cost him time, but that didn’t stop him from taking the overall lead.

Evans found more at the front of his car and did well to only lose 5.4 seconds given his position on the road. He was faster than Ogier (+7.0s) and his title rival Neuville, who faced the most difficult conditions.

Building on his stage victory, Sordo once again kept his promises in the fourth stage (Gois, 14.30 km). The Hyundai driver managed to outscore Rovanpera for the second consecutive test, this time 1.8 seconds ahead to take the stage victory and move up to fifth place overall.

“I can do these two steps all day. I’m happy with the car, honestly, in the first stage it was me,” said Sordo. “The car is great, I have good feelings. Hats off to the Hyundai guys.

Rovanpera was able to move up to third in the general classification ahead of Neuville but remained perplexed about his pace: “It was better in these conditions, I don’t know why but we struggled with the balance of the car. There was a lot of understeer.

He wasn’t the only Toyota driver to suffer as Evans reported problems trying to spin his car while Ogier said his car was “too lazy”. Both men posted times good enough to place eighth and fourth respectively. Evans’ time loss of 8.6 seconds dropped the Welshman three positions to eighth overall.

In comparison, Neuville, who started first on the road ahead of Evans, was 2.4 seconds faster than his rival despite tire wear problems.

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Leading the pack, Katsuta was 0.4 seconds faster than Tanak, extending his lead to 1.9 seconds.

The final stage of the loop witnessed an inspired performance from Neuville, who chose to put on four soft tires in boiling conditions. A committed race resulted in a stage win, 2.2 seconds faster than Rovanpera, which propelled the Belgian from fourth to second place in the general classification.

Katsuta retained his rally lead after posting a time 0.1 seconds slower, while Ogier performed admirably without an intercom system to lose just 3.0 seconds. Sordo’s good form was halted by a hybrid problem which cost him a position, after setting the sixth fastest time behind his teammate Tanak. Evans, whose handling difficulties continued, gave up a further 7.3 seconds.

The crews will complete a tire fitting area before repeating the four stages this afternoon.