Estonian driver set for back-to-back WRC wins as Neuville's home dreams are shattered.
Ott Tänak inherited a surprise lead at Ypres Rally Belgium when team-mate and long-time leader Thierry Neuville crashed into retirement on Saturday afternoon.
The Hyundai i20 N driver will carry an 8.2sec advantage over Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Elfyn Evans into Sunday’s final leg after team-mate Thierry Neuville’s rally unravelled in the penultimate stage of the day.
Tänak, driving a Hyundai i20 N, briefly took charge after the opening Reninge test but was quickly swept aside by team-mate Neuville as a rear differential issue hampered his progress during the morning.
After pulling 17.2sec clear of his colleague, Neuville looked all but set for a repeat victory at his home WRC round - but the rally was turned on its head 6.4km into the Wijtschate stage when the Belgian understeered into a deep ditch on the outside of a left-hand corner.
Spectators were quickly on scene to extract the car but Neuville pulled over just 1.1km down the road with terminal damage.
His demise means Tänak is on course for his second-consecutive victory, having triumphed just a few weeks ago at Secto Rally Finland.
“Obviously in the morning we were struggling with the transmission, but at lunchtime we were able to change it and in the afternoon it was working,” Tänak said. “It was just a different setting and it took me some time to adapt to it, but in the end I got used to it and started to trust it more.
“Tomorrow will be far from easy - I think it will be a big push in the morning. Elfyn is doing a good job and it will not be easy for him, but let's see. It's still a relatively long day tomorrow,” he added.
Back at service, Neuville explained he was simply caught out by a patch of loose gravel which had been pulled onto the road after his route note crew had driven through.
"It was basically full of dirt from the cars in front," he said. "We had nothing in the pace notes and we weren't aware it would be so slippery, so we got caught by surprise and understeered into the ditch."
Evans was able to close in on Tänak during the morning loop but lost ground later in the day once his rival had made changes at the mid-leg service. He ended more than one minute clear of GR Yaris team-mate Esapekka Lappi, who filled the final podium spot after a drama-free day.
Almost two minutes further back in fourth overall was Hyundai pilot Oliver Solberg. The young Swede was locked into a dicing duel with M-Sport Ford Puma hotshot Adrien Fourmaux, who ended 14.3sec behind after being lumbered with a 20sec time penalty for arriving late to the start of SS15.
Both drivers moved up the order early in the day when Craig Breen, who had been running fifth, rolled his Puma into retirement after overcooking a left-hander at Dikkebus.
After plummeting down the order with a transmission fault on Friday, Takamoto Katsuta fought back to take sixth overall. It wasn’t an easy day for the 29-year-old as a hybrid unit issue left his Yaris intermittently lacking extra boost.
Sunday's closing leg features four special stages and takes place entirely within the Flanders region.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N 1hr 58min 55.2sec
2. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +8.2sec
3. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Toyota GR Yaris +1min 9.8sec
4. O Solberg / E Edmondson SWE Hyundai i20 N +2min 51.6sec
5. A Fourmaux / A Coria FRA Ford Puma +3min 5.9sec
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston JAP Toyota GR Yaris +5min 39.3sec