Two-time RallyRACC Catalunya-Costa Daurada Rally de Espanã winner Thierry Neuville leads the asphalt event by the tiniest of margins at the end of an action-packed opening loop this morning.
Just six seconds blanketed the leading quartet after four demanding Tarmac tests north of rally base Salou, with Hyundai i20 N Rally1 star Neuville topping the timesheets by a mere 0.5s ahead of from Toyota GR Yaris Rally1-driving rival Sébastien Ogier.
Belgian star Neuville, with Martijn Wydaeghe co-driving, posted a trio of second-fastest stage times before staking his claim for a hat-trick of successive Spanish victories by ousting Ogier from the top spot on the final Riba-roja test.
Neuville remained generally content with his car’s set-up but admitted choosing the correct tyre strategy posed the biggest challenge in drying conditions. He ran soft compound Pirelli rubber for most of the morning before bolting on a pair of hard compound slicks for the last stage.
“We had a clean run through,” he said. “The tyre strategy hasn’t been so easy this morning and it was a bit on the edge in here, but the balance wasn’t so bad on the car. I was actually enjoying it.”
In third overall, and just 1.6sec back from team-mate Ogier, is WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä. The Finn profited from a cleaner surface running first on the road and led the way after winning stages one and two.
His time at the top was short-lived, however, as the 21-year-old complained of understeer towards the end of the 22.64-kilometre Les Garrigues Altes stage.
Ott Tänak is fortunate to still be in contention after making frantic repairs on the road section back to service due to a suspected alternator issue. The Estonian also struggled with a hybrid unit fault on SS2.
Despite the drama, Tänak is just 1.8s adrift of the final podium spot heading into this afternoon’s loop when the morning stages will be repeated once more.
Elfyn Evans put his 10.9s deficit to leader Neuville down to nothing more than being too hesitant. The Yaris driver ended the morning in fifth overall with a comfortable 13.9s buffer over sixth-placed Spaniard Dani Sordo (Hyundai).
Takamoto Katsuta and Craig Breen also struggled to find their confidence, with leading M-Sport Ford Puma driver Breen explaining that his pacenotes were ‘too slow’. The pair hold seventh and eighth respectively ahead of Puma duo Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith, who complete the top 10.
Pierre-Louis Loubet is languishing more than 1m20s off the pace after a fraught morning in his Puma. The French youngster suffered a damaged front-left tyre on SS3 and pulled over shortly after the final stage to extinguish a small engine bay fire before continuing.
Hyundai Motorsport N’s Teemu Suninen heads WRC2 Junior pacesetter Nikolay Gryazin (Toksport WRT Škoda) by 2.3s in WRC2 Open, with Mauro Miele 20.8s in front in WRC Masters. Jan Černý holds top spot in WRC3 at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta Rally3. Emmanuel Guigou is ahead in RGT driving an Alpine A110.
The action continues with the repeat of Els Omells – Maldà, SS5, from 15h09 CET.