Breen on top at Rally Sweden
By Jason Craig
Saturday 11th February, 2023 - 4:49pm
Hyundai Motorsport’s new recruit Craig Breen safely negotiated the first full day of action at Rally Sweden and holds a slender 2.6s lead over former World Rally Championship winner, Ott Tanak.
Breen’s confidence steadily grew as Friday wore on, and despite misjudging his braking point and kissing a snow bank in the morning, displacing Tanak from top spot always had an air of inevitability to it.
When faced with the worst of the conditions given his lower starting position, the Irishman always struck the right balance between speed and car preservation through the forests north of Umea, the host city for Round 2 of the WRC.
However, on studded rubber that was quickly showing its age, he lost ground on the penultimate test to understeer, a double-digit buffer trimmed to single figures by Tanak who declared the Pirelli tyres on his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 car were “finished” and offering him minimal levels of traction.
Breen remains without a victory in the sport’s top flight compared to Tanak’s seventeen, and the job of holding off the Estonian – and those immediately behind him – will be much tougher across Saturday’s seven special stages as his I20 N Rally1 supermini will perform ‘road opening’ duties.
However, a rejuvenated Breen – who endured a torrid 2022 campaign with M-Sport Ford that delivered only a brace of podium finishes – says that he is more than up to the challenge with James Fulton.
“That was definitely one of my strongest ones,” beamed Breen.
“Last year I was usually upside down or stuck in a hedge somewhere, so it is music to my ears to be in the lead tonight.”
Tanak is hoping set-up tweaks applied back at the service halt overnight will keep him in the hunt for a maiden victory since re-joining the Blue Oval from Hyundai at the end of last season. A code brown moment on a fast right-hander during SS6 was proof he was having to “fight” with his Puma.
That aside, he feels he has taken a step in the right direction with it. “To be second overnight is much more than we expected coming here so in this case it is quite good but we can do better,” he said.
Behind the squabbling Breen and Tanak in third is Esapekka Lappi. His second outing for Hyundai was largely trouble-free, save for an overshoot and having to ease off the gas because of “messy” lines that had been carved by those cars running in front of him. The Finn – known for his bubbly character and sanguine approach – has vowed to have “a think overnight” and go again tomorrow.
Provisionally fourth overall on an event he triumphed at in 2020 is Elfyn Evans. The conditions did little to encourage the Welshman to push on initially, but tweaks to the balance of his GR Yaris at the lunchtime service halt gave him a much more responsive – and predictable – car to work with.
His perseverance paid off on SS4 as his Toyota teammate – and reigning WRC title winner – Kalle Rovanpera slid his way from one corner to the next, haemorrhaging time as he did so, while the third Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta hit a snow bank on the same stretch and sent it onto its roof before coming to rest again on its wheels.
When it did, the car looked rather second hand and – inevitably – was retired not long after that as steam began to billow from the engine bay.
Combined, Evans found himself elevated to fourth place, with Rovanpera in fifth and a below-par Thierry Neuville in sixth. Having missed the pre-event test due to the flu, Neuville found himself on the back foot, with understeer a persistent issue. For him, “just surviving” the day was the key.
Rounding out the remaining Rally1 winners is M-Sport Ford’s second points-scoring driver Pierre-Louis Loubet.
There were no heroics from the young Frenchman, although a fault with the energy recovery system on his car – and an overshoot on the closing Friday stage – conspired to hold him back.
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