WRC Acropolis Rally: Neuville inherits lead as drama shakes up leaderboard

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville has inherited the Acropolis Rally lead after drama struck the leading M-Sport duo of Sebastien Loeb and Pierre-Louis Loubet on Saturday morning.

WRC Acropolis Rally: Neuville inherits lead as drama shakes up leaderboard

Neuville had started the day sitting fourth but completed the morning loop of stages leading the rally by 31.0s from Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi.

Ott Tanak survived the three stages in third some 32.3s adrift after suffering a differential issue that occurred after winning the day’s first stage of the day.

The trio all benefitted from the demise of M-Sport duo Loeb and Loubet which shook up the leaderboard. Loeb retired from the lead due to an alternator issue while Loubet picked up a puncture, dropping him from second to seventh overall.

The drama wasn’t limited to M-Sport as championship leader Kalle Rovanpera suffered a left rear brake and suspension issue after clipping a tree. The Finn ended the morning 14m53.3s adrift.

As a result, Hyundai’s Dani Sordo climbed to fourth ahead of Toyota’s Elfyn Evans and the M-Sport trio of Gus Greensmith, Loubet and Craig Breen.

The morning began with Tanak lighting up the timing screens as the 2019 world champion blitzed the 33.2km Pyrgos test, the longest stage of the rally, to claim his first stage win of the event.

Tanak was 1.7s faster than Loeb as the Hyundai driver attempted to haul himself back into the mix for a podium.

Tanak’s teammate Neuville shot from fourth to second overall as Loubet and Lappi were unable to match the fast Belgian, who posted the third fastest time.

However, Neuville would inherit the lead on the next stage, Stage 9, when rally leader Loeb was forced to pull over on a road section after his Ford Pumas suffered an alternator issue.

Loeb and co-driver Isabelle Galmiche attempted to repair the problem but ran out of time to reach Stage 9, resulting in a retirement. It was the second time this season that Loeb has retired from the lead after a rare driver error resulted in him crashing out of Rally Portugal in May.

Sebastien Loeb, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team

Sebastien Loeb, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

M-Sport were dealt a second blow minutes later when Loubet suffered a front left puncture during Stage 9, which cost him 1m13.2s as he coaxed the car on three wheels through the stage. It dropped the Frenchman, who briefly led the rally on Friday, from second to seventh.

There was further drama in the stage as championship leader Kalle Rovanpera made contact with a tree after sliding wide at a slow right hander.

The Toyota driver lost the entire tailgate of his GR Yaris and was forced to crawl through the test, losing 6m29.4s, which ended any hopes of a strong points haul.

"We just went wide and hit the rear on something,” said Rovanpera, who began the day in ninth after struggling opening the roads on Friday. “I was struggling this morning like yesterday. Going flat-out everywhere and still being slow is not easy."

While the issues shook up the leaderboard, Neuville won Stage 9 by 8.2s from Tanak although the latter’s i20 N began to develop a differential issue.

Greensmith ended the stage third fastest ahead of Sordo, Evans and Lappi, who dropped to third overall behind Tanak, after appearing to struggle for outright speed.

However, Lappi responded on the final stage of the loop to reclaim second overall from Tanak after posting the third fastest time on Stage 10. That stage was won by Neuville, thanks to a time 8.1s faster than Greensmith, which resulted in Neuville extending his lead to 31.0s.

"I am surprised. We had a good clean run this morning and I think the tyre choice was good as well but I struggled a bit with the balance at the rear and I had to adapt a bit,” said Neuville.

"It's good that we can extend a lead on a loop like this - it gives us confidence for the afternoon, but there is still a long way to go.”

The crews will return to complete a second pass of the morning stages following a mid-point service.

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