Ott Tanak takes World Rally Championship points lead
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Ott Tanak takes the lead in Sweden; Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville finished third (left). Photos / Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC; Austral/Hyundai Motorsport
He’s won stages, set blazing Power Stage pace, claimed rally victories and chased the championship leaders — and now Estonian star Ott Tanak finds himself atop the WRC leader board for the first time in his career.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver claimed a commanding win at WRC Rally Sweden last weekend, finishing nearly a minute clear of his rivals and signing off with a flourish by earning maximum Power Stage bonus points with a time 3.5secs quicker than anyone else on a short 8.93km blast through the Torsby test.
It was the seventh WRC event win for Tanak and has bumped him into a seven-point lead after two rallies in the 14-event season. It will be a concerning development for title rivals Sebastien Ogier (France) and Thierry Neuville (Belgium), who spent the second half of 2018 watching over their shoulders as Tanak set the pace while pursuing them.
Sweden provided winter excitement with the surprise early pacesetter being Finland’s Teemu Suninen. The Ford Fiesta driver gained the lead by winning both runs through the Svullyra stage on Friday and completed the first leg with a 2secs lead over Tanak. A spin into a snow bank on Saturday’s second stage cost Suninen a minute and a half and dropped him to eighth place and he lost more time later in the rally.
Suninen’s delay put Tanak out in front by 34.2secs over Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway). Eventually claiming fastest times on six of the 18 stages in his Toyota Yaris WRC, he extended his lead to 53.7secs advantage over Citroen’s Esapekka Lappi (Finland).
After an early retirement at the season opener in Monte Carlo, Lappi started steadily in Sweden and climbed up the order from fifth at the end of day one to secure the second place as he fended off Neuville by 3.0secs in the podium battle.
Mikkelsen had no new tyres in his inventory for Sunday’s three-stage final loop and slipped back to fourth behind Lappi and teammate Neuville. The best of the Ford Fiesta drivers with several quick stage times — including three wins — was Elfyn Evans (GB) who finished fifth ahead of Toyota’s Kris Meeke (GB).
Sebastien Loeb’s second outing with Hyundai ended with seventh place ahead of Sweden’s Pontus Tidemand (Ford). Loeb found he had written pace notes that were too slow for the fast Swedish roads and the latest generation of WRC machinery.
Norway’s Ole Christian Veiby finished eighth and confirmed the potential of the new Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 contender.
Ogier’s hopes of a seventh consecutive title suffered a blow in Sweden. He’d been in seventh place on Friday before getting stuck in a snow bank in stage six and retiring. He returned under Rally2 rules and took three Saturday stage wins, and fourth quickest time in the Power Stage earned him two bonus points that may prove critical at the end of the season.
Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala — who led briefly on Friday — was another second day restarter after getting his Toyota Yaris stuck in a snow bank on stage eight. Latvala finished 21st and Ogier was 29th overall.
The championship heads to Mexico (March 7-10) with Tanak in front on 47 points from Neuville on 40 and Ogier with 31 — early suggestion that the same trio of drivers will dispute the 2019 title that did last year. Meeke is fourth with 21 points while Lappi on 19 and Loeb on 18 complete the top six.
Tanak’s win has edged Toyota Gazoo Racing ahead in the Manufacturers’ standing with 58 points, one ahead of Hyundai on 57 Citroen on 47 and M-Sport Ford, 30.