Belgian Thierry Neuville is three stages away from winning EKO Acropolis Rally Greece after he completed Saturday’s punishing 147.98-kilometre leg with an advantage of almost 30 seconds following a hugely challenging day in the FIA World Rally Championship.
One-third of the top-tier crews failed to complete the demanding route held on rugged gravel stages near host city Lamia in central Greece. But Neuville and the Hyundai Mobis Shell World Rally Team were impenetrable with Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo in course to complete what would be a first 1-2-3 for the South Korean manufacturer.
After Sébastien Loeb led by 16.0s at the completion of Friday’s opening leg, Neuville, who is co-driven by compatriot Martijn Wydaeghe, was surprised to find himself at the top of the classification after today’s opening stage when Loeb’s M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 suffered alternator belt failure following the flying finish.
Neuville was unchallenged from that moment onwards and he maintained an impressive pace throughout the day, charging to three fastest times as his rivals hit trouble. A dashboard warning alarm for low battery voltage provided a brief scare but did not appear to have any effect on the Hyundai i20 N Rally1s’ performance.
As a result, Neuville carries a hefty 27.9s advantage over Tänak heading into Sunday’s three-stage finale and, as it stands, remains on-course to claim his first victory of the WRC’s hybrid era and his first in Greece.
“It has been a great day for us,” reflected Neuville. “A bit of a hard one this afternoon with some trouble with the car, but we survived and we are here now. We had a warning for battery voltage, but it seems okay. I was just trying to drive cleanly through to avoid punctures.”
Although Tänak started strongly with a stage win at Pyrgos, he was unable to make any major gains on his leading team-mate since moving into the top-three when Pierre-Louis Loubet’s Puma suffered tyre damage on SS9.
Tänak complained of differential troubles during the morning loop but matters seemed to improve after service and he headed colleague Dani Sordo by 25.0s at the completion of day two.
Sordo swooped onto the podium late in the day at the expense of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Esapekka Lappi, whose GR Yaris Rallly1 developed a fuel-related problem on the penultimate stage. The Finn’s engine kept cutting out and he was eventually forced to retire on the road section.
Toyota’s hopes now rest on the shoulders of Elfyn Evans, who brought his Yaris home in fourth overall after 13 stages. The Welshman struggled to find a rhythm, especially in loose conditions on the morning passes, but pressured Sordo during the closing stages to end only 7.1s behind.
Loubet recovered to round off the top-five, albeit more than two minutes back from the lead. His Puma-driving team-mate Craig Breen followed, with Toyota youngster Takamoto Katsuta behind in seventh after a scrappy day which included two spins.
FIA WRC2 leader Emil Lindholm heads Toksport Škoda team-mate Nikolay Gryazin in eighth with Yohan Rossel completing the top 10 in his PH Sport Citroën C3 Rally2.
Kalle Rovanperä’s hopes of sealing the drivers’ title this weekend were dashed when he swiped a tree on the first pass through Perivoli. Although he was able to continue, Toyota’s 21-year-old star dropped more than 11 minutes as he limped back to service with bodywork damage and brake issues.
M-Sport’s frustrations were compounded by the retirements of Gus Greensmith and Jourdan Serderidis. Greensmith had been running in the top-six but stopped with a mechanical failure on SS11, while Serderidis’ Puma hit electrical trouble after leaving the lunchtime service.
Armin Kremer continues to dominate the WRC2 Masters’ Cup, Diego Dominguez heads FIA WRC3, while Robert Virves holds first place in FIA WRC3 Junior.
Sunday’s deciding leg takes place north of Lamia. Eleftherochori (16.90km) runs twice at 09h08 and 13h18 local time and sandwiches a single run of Elatia-Rengini (11.26km). The rerun of Eleftherochori counts as the bonus-points-paying Power Stage.