WRC Chile: Tanak in control as Toyota tyre call backfires
An inspired M-Sport tyre call helped Ott Tanak to stretch his Rally Chile lead over Teemu Suninen on the World Rally Championship event's Saturday morning loop, as Toyota’s strategy backfired.
Tanak claimed two of the three morning stages but it was decision to run hard tyres for the final stage that helped the Estonian to open up a commanding 47.5s lead over Hyundai driver Suninen. Tanak had started the day with only a 4.2s overnight margin.
Toyota’s Elfyn Evans briefly jumped to second, but a call to run soft tyres resulted in the Welshman dropping to fourth overall (+1m16.8s). Suninen's team-mate Thierry Neuville climbed to third 13.8s ahead of Evans, with championship leader Kalle Rovanpera fifth (+1m44.7s).
Saturday’s stages were equally as demanding as Fridays, but the roads were much more abrasive and technical, leading drivers to describe the conditions as like tackling a different rally.
The day kicked off with a 27.19km pass through the Chivilingo forest. The low sun, coupled with hanging dust, made visibility incredibly challenging for crews.
However it didn’t halt Rovanpera, now fed up with road cleaning duties. The Finn, opting for a soft tyre approach, delivered a blistering effort to claim his first stage win of the rally.
However Rovanpera wasn’t happy with his effort, which took 15.7s out of Neuville to leap ahead of the Belgian into fourth overall. A puncture did contribute to Neuville’s time loss.
“I'm still struggling with the car a bit on the twisty sections, I don't really like how it feels at the moment,” said the Toyota driver. “It was a tricky stage - low sun and lots of dust.”
Rovanpera’s title rival Evans, also on soft rubber, climbed up the leaderboard to second overall after overhauling Suninen, running a mix of hard and soft Pirellis.
Teemu Suninen, Hyundai World Rally Team
Photo by: Vincent Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport
Rally leader Tanak completed a test he labelled “extremely demanding” with the second fastest time, 1.6s behind Rovanpera. With Suninen dropping 12.0s, Tanak’s lead more than doubled to 13.8s over Evans.
Three-minute gaps between Rally1 drivers made visibility challenging, with Toyota's third driver Takamo Katsuta dropping 22.6s as he was unable to drive “like normal” due to the dust.
The conditions were much worse for the junior classes, running two-minute gaps. Oliver Solberg fought through the dust to surge ahead of Sami Pajari and claim the WRC2 lead, despite suffering a 360 spin.
Rally organisers responded to the driver’s visibility concerns by introducing four-minute gaps for Rally1 cars and three-minute intervals for Rally2 cars.
Tyre management was key as crews tackled stage eight (Rio Lia 1, 21.09 km), one of only two tests that utilised roads from the championship’s last visit in 2019.
Rovanpera took too much out of his soft tyres winning the previous test and suffered, losing 20.9s which demoted him back to fifth overall behind Neuville.
“Our plan was way too optimistic this morning and it didn't work out so well for the tyres,” said Rovanpera, who was managing his rubber in the stage. “There is not much more I can do - there is much more to lose than gain so I just try to get through the loop.”
There appeared to be no sign of tyre management for Tanak, running a soft/hard split. The M-Sport driver produced a stunning effort to win the stage by 6.8s from a careful Evans, extending his lead to 20.6s over the soft-shod Toyota.
Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
Suninen was 10.7s slower than Evans, but the Finn said he was operating different tyre tactics to his rival. This ploy paid off as Toyota’s decision to run only soft tyres on its GR Yaris’ backfired on the final test of the loop (Maria de las Cruces 28.72km), the longest of the rally.
Evans, Rovanpera and Katsuta were reduced to a crawl towards the end of the stage after simply running out of rubber, which shook up the leaderboard significantly.
Evans was the big loser, haemorrhaging 56.2s to rally leader Tanak. His four hard tyres helped him sweep to a stage winning time, 7.5s faster than Neuville (three hard, one soft).
Rovanpera fared marginally better than Evans, ending the stage 9.5s faster than his title rival, while Katsuta lost almost a minute and half, but held onto sixth overall.
Solberg maintained eighth overall to lead the WRC2 support class with a 13.7s margin over Pajari ahead of the afternoon stages.
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