Estonian overcomes late scare to demote Craig Breen on Saturday evening.
Ott Tänak unleashed a night-time frenzy on Saturday at Rally Sweden, demoting Craig Breen to second overall heading into Sunday’s three-stage finale.
The duelling duo traded times over the course of the rally’s longest day, with Breen holding on to a marginal advantage at the halfway point.
As the snow-covered roads became more and more rutted in the fading light of the afternoon loop, Tänak began to reel in his Hyundai Motorsport rival - arriving to the start of the penultimate Sävar test just half a second in arrears after Breen had suffered time loss with a delaminated tyre.
There, Tänak excelled in the night-time conditions, with the split times showing he was on course to outpace Breen by around 10sec. In another dramatic twist, however, the Estonian suffered near-identical tyre troubles to his opponent - but still managed to better the Irishman’s time by 2.8sec and snatch the lead.
Tänak was faster again as Breen complained of a hybrid issue in the final Umeå blast. He ended 8.6sec to the good, laying the foundations for M-Sport Ford’s first victory in over a year.
"It was a challenging day,” admitted Puma driver Tänak. “We had everything planned for the last two stages - to keep the tyres and make the time up there - but then we lost them, and we had to do the last stage with no studs on one tyre. It's never comfortable until it's done. Let's get to the finish first."
Esapekka Lappi fell down the order after running wide on a left-hander in SS13, plunging his Hyundai into a snowbank. The Finn’s demise opened the door for Thierry Neuville and Kalle Rovanperä to fight for the final podium spot.
Rovanperä, driving a Toyota GR Yaris, held the upper hand until late in the day, but he gave way to Hyundai’s Neuville in the final stage as his tyres wore out. The pair were split by 3.8sec at close of play, with Neuville only 15.1sec adrift of Breen.
Elfyn Evans lacked confidence aboard his Yaris and subsequently fell behind the aforementioned pair, ending the day more than half a minute further back.
Pierre-Louis Loubet brought his Puma home in sixth overall ahead of WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg, who holds a commanding lead in the premier support category. Ole Christian Veiby, Sami Pajari and Nikolay Gryazin complete the leaderboard.
Three stages form today’s finale. Back-to-back runs of Västervik (26.48km) are up first before another run through Umeå (10.08km) forms the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma 1hr 54min 45.4sec
2. C Breen / J Fulton IRL Hyundai i20 N +8.6sec
3. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +23.7sec
4. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +27.5sec
5. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +57.7sec
6. PL Loubet / N Gilsoul FRA Ford Puma +2min 28.1sec