WRC Sweden: Tanak surges into slender lead from returning Breen

M-Sport’s Ott Tanak has claimed the Rally Sweden lead as the leaderboard underwent a significant shake up on Friday morning at the World Rally Championship’s snow event.

WRC Sweden: Tanak surges into slender lead from returning Breen

The 2019 world champion moved into a 2.1s over Hyundai’s Craig Breen, competing in his first event of his partial WRC campaign after departing M-Sport, as tricky snow and icy conditions benefitted those running lower down in the road order.

Tanak’s surge to the front came despite failing to secure a fastest stage time on the three tests.

Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi made the most of his road position to reach service in third, 4.1s adrift. Overnight leader and world champion Kalle Rovanpera dropped to fourth, 4.7s back, as he limited the damage of his unfavourable road position.

Takamoto Katsuta (Toyota) netted a stage win to move to fifth ahead of the struggling trio of Elfyn Evans (Toyota), Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) and Pierre-Louis Loubet (M-Sport Ford).

Road position proved pivotal in the opening stage of the day thanks to a layer of powdered snow on the road. It favoured the latter runners but it was Breen who starred as he hauled his i20 N to an emotional stage win after his character-building 2022 season.

Breen completed the test 3.8s faster than Tanak, who has taken the seat vacated by 33-year-old for this season.

"I've missed that feeling,” said Breen, who appeared to be almost in tears at stage end. “Very, very simple, completely effortless. Second chance - I'm a very lucky boy.”

While Breen took the stage spoils, Tanak’s impressive run through Brattby moved him into the overall lead.

Craig Breen, James Fulton, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Craig Breen, James Fulton, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Hyundai’s Lappi continued to highlight the speed he displayed in Thursday night’s opener to clock the third fastest time, despite a small moment in the stage.

Katsuta came through in fourth ahead of Neuville, Evans, Loubet and overnight leader Rovanpera, who all struggled for grip. Facing the worst of the conditions, Rovanpera dropped 12.5s as he slipped to from the lead to fourth overall.

However, the Finn fought back on Stage 3 (Sarsjöliden, 14.23km), which featured far more favourable conditions for the early runners thanks to the snow being replaced by a layer of packed ice. Rovanpera took the stage win by a second from Lappi with Katsuta third.

Tanak slightly extended his overall lead by 0.6s over Breen as the pair logged times good enough for fourth and fifth fastest.

“Happy is probably too much of a strong word for me, but we are here at least,” said Tanak.

However, Neuville and Evans continued to struggle. The pair ran wide at the same long left hander, with the latter extremely lucky to continue after a heavy collision with a snowbank.

"I just understeered on a long corner and completely missed my apex. It's not going well so far,” said Evans.

Evans’ team-mate Katsuta added his name to the stage winners board, becoming the third different driver in four stages to post a fastest time. Incredibly, 0.7s separated the top four across the 25.81km Botsmark stage as Katsuta emerged 0.3s faster than Rovanpera, with Tanak two tenths back.

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Breen extended his strong start as he finished another two tenths in arrears, despite picking up some damage to the front of his i20 N after cutting a corner.

“I was very close to missing the braking on one junction - I had to drive into a snowbank to get it stopped," said Breen. “No dramas, I'm just trying to perfect my braking wherever I can.”

Lappi was only 1.9s shy but the same couldn’t be said for Evans, who admitted he was “struggling in a lot areas” and battling for confidence, as he found himself 15.5s behind the overall leader Tanak.

Oliver Solberg headed to service leading WRC2 from Sami Pajari by 6.4s. But Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hamalainen’s title defence didn’t get off to the best start after they dropped two minutes with an off in Stage 3.

A repeat of the morning stages this afternoon followed by a blast through the Umea super special will complete Friday’s leg.

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