Irish driver edges out Ott Tänak after a fascinating day of racing near Jyväskylä.
Craig Breen grabbed the lead of Secto Automotive Rally Finland from team-mate Ott Tänak in a gripping night-time forest finale to Friday’s opening leg.
Breen unseated the Estonian, who had led for all but one of the opening five speed tests, with a charging flat-out drive through the closing Oittila special stage – the rally’s first test in darkness since 1994.
With his Hyundai i20’s auxiliary lights blazing on the tree-lined roads, the Irishman overturned a 1.5sec deficit to lead Tänak by 2.8sec. Just 7.9sec blanketed the top five after a frantic Friday with Elfyn Evans, Esapekka Lappi and Kalle Rovanperä hot on their heels.
Breen and Tänak shared two stage wins each and the pair were never separated by more than four seconds as the FIA World Rally Championship’s fastest round lit up the gravel tracks near Jyväskylä.
“It's been an amazing day and I really enjoyed every second,” said Breen. “I always wondered how it would feel in the dark and it definitely lived up to expectations. I think everyone is going to try and find a little extra something tomorrow. We’ll try – we’ll not let it slip by that easily.”
Tänak, who is bidding for his third straight Rally Finland victory, was surprised to be in the fight for victory against a Toyota Gazoo Racing squad, which is based near Jyväskylä and is unbeaten on the rally since 2017.
“We never expected to be in a battle with Toyota,” he admitted. “I had quite a bad pre-event test so we made quite a lot of changes and it seems to be working in parts. But today was just an introduction because tomorrow is a big day.”
Evans even outpaced the duelling Hyundai pair through Oittila to claim the fastest time and leap from fifth to third in a Toyota Yaris. The Welshman kept clear of trouble to end 3.3sec behind Tänak and six-tenths ahead of Lappi.
Lappi, the winner in 2017, was returning to the top tier for the first time since December last year but quickly shook off the rust in a privately-entered Yaris. He ended 1.2sec clear of fellow Finn Rovanperä, whose pace significantly improved on the second pass of the stages.
Thierry Neuville was more than half a minute off the lead in sixth in another i20. The Belgian was cautious throughout but ended with a 2.3sec advantage over championship leader Sébastien Ogier, who was frustrated by his pace.
Takamoto Katsuta led after the opening Harju stage through Jyväskylä’s streets, but the Japanese driver was fortunate to survive a huge high-speed spin after hitting a bump in the next stage. He was eighth, ahead of Ford Fiesta pair Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux.
With 151.95km of relentless action around Jämsä, Saturday’s action comprises more than half the rally’s competitive distance. Four morning stages, including roads from the iconic Ouninpohja test, are repeated in the afternoon after service. A re-run of today’s Harju stage, in darkness, completes a gruelling leg.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. C Breen / P Nagle IRL Hyundai i20 43min 51.3sec
2. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 +2.8sec
3. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota Yaris +6.1sec
4. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Toyota Yaris +6.7sec
5. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota Yaris +7.9sec
6. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 +31.3sec