Just 7.2sec blanketed the leading four drivers after 158.56km of frantic action on what was the longest leg of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship so far.
Tänak was initially dominant in his Hyundai i20 N and opened up a slender advantage as heavy downpours plagued the morning’s stages on gravel roads in the Waikato Region.
When the rain clouds briefly parted ahead of the second pass of Whaanga Coast, however, the Estonian driver was hampered by an early road position and struggled for traction as the surface dried and became loose.
He was passed by Toyota Gazoo Racing star Elfyn Evans as well as the Welshman’s part-time colleague Ogier who, aided by a lower starting position, climbed from fifth to first overall after outpacing the entire field by 8.2sec while managing his soft compound Pirelli rubber to perfection.
Wet weather returned for the closing two speed tests and Ogier soon came unstuck – brushing a tree branch with the rear end of his Yaris which ripped the upper half of the spoiler from the car.
That enabled Tänak to crank up the pressure and he stormed back in front with a stage win on the final test as Ogier struggled with reduced rear aero, ending 6.7sec adrift of the lead. Evans’ consistency was rewarded and he swooped into the runner-up spot – trailing the leader by just two-tenths of a second.
Road-opening duties actually played to Kalle Rovanperä’s advantage as the Toyota hotshot avoided the worst of a heavy shower on SS6. The Finn finished the day just 0.5sec behind Ogier in fourth overall but, unless he can overhaul Tänak within the next two days, will not be able to seal the drivers’ title this week.
M-Sport Ford’s pair of Pumas were initially dominant as Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith locked out the top-two after the opener. Things quickly turned sour, however, when Breen retired after sliding down a banking on the same corner which caught out Colin McRae in 2002.
Greensmith was left flying the flag for the British squad and he coped admirably to end the day 36.6sec back from Rovanperä in fifth.
Thierry Neuville’s morning was plagued by two costly spins but his luck improved as the day wore on. A softer suspension set-up heralded more confidence in his i20 and by close of play the EKO Acropolis Rally Greece winner had moved to within 1.8sec of Greensmith.
Oliver Solberg and Takamoto Katsuta were seventh and eight respectively. Puma privateer Lorenzo Bertelli is tenth overall in a Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid.
Local hero Paddon dominates WRC2 on Friday
Hayden Paddon’s international experience coupled with his local knowledge helped the Kiwi favourite surge to a lead of over a minute in WRC2. He holds ninth in the overall classification.
The Hyundai driver maintained a blistering pace in Friday’s varying conditions, picking up four stage wins in his i20 N Rally2 to go with his super special stage victory on Thursday evening at Auckland’s Pukekawa domain.
The only other driver to record stage wins was Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who claimed two aboard a Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo. The class regular struggled to find a rhythm on his maiden New Zealand outing but still managed to finish the day in second overall, albeit 1min 1.5sec down on Paddon.
A further 35.5sec back was relative newcomer to rallying, Shane van Gisbergen. The two-time Supercars Champion and current 2022 Supercars leader was taking on his first full day of WRC action, with a spin on the final stage of the morning his only glitch in an otherwise impressive day. “Whaanga Coast was the most fun I’ve ever had in a race car,” claimed the buzzing Škoda driver.
Another New Zealander Ben Hunt moved into fourth position on the day’s penultimate stage at the expense of Australian champion Harry Bates, who dropped time when the rear right tyre came off his Fabia’s rim.
But Hunt’s move up the leaderboard was short-lived as his Fabia clipped a rock on a high-speed left-hander 8.8km into the day’s final stage, putting him into an out-of-control spin which ended in a fence.
That allowed Bates to move back into fourth ahead of WRC2 Masters leader Armin Kremer, who completed the top-five in a Citroën C3 Rally2.
Competitors journey north of rally base Auckland on Saturday for double runs through Kaipara Hills (15.83km), Puhoi (22.50km) and Komokoriki (5.81km). A return to Auckland for service separates the loops, which add up to 88.28km.