A grandstand finish is on the cards for the concluding day of Rally Sweden on Sunday as the top two drivers – Ott Tanak and Craig Breen – ended Saturday separated by less than nine seconds.
Tanak had trailed the man who replaced him at Hyundai for the 2023 season for much of Saturday before doubling down on his move for top spot on the penultimate stage – and making it stick.
At a snip under 130km, Saturday was the longest day of the winter event, and of the stages used by organisers, the 12.54km of ‘Norrby' and the 28.25km run through of ‘Floda' were new for 2023.
Similar to Friday, road conditions worsened on the second pass, with gravel being pulled to the surface – and the formation of deep ruts – ensuring the need to preserve their tyres was crucial.
Breen began in purposeful fashion, increasing his advantage on the opening two tests, with those overseeing the development of the engine in his I20 N Rally1 coming in for special praise.
However, a cautious approach was called for over ‘Savar' by virtue of the fact the Irishman had never sampled it before and that was all a pacy Tanak required to trim the deficit to three seconds.
That was impressive considering Tanak told reporters he did not feel at one with his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1, even in less technical sections and through slower gear corners.
However, as a former winner of the World Rally Championship, the Estonian found a way to circumvent these problems and steadily ramped up the pressure on Breen.
Three stages later on SS14 – the second from last speed test – the pendulum finally swung in Tanak's favour.
He was not getting an easy ride by any means, but he was faring better than former Junior and Super 2000 world champion Breen, who hit a snowbank on SS12 and experienced a high-speed front tyre delamination on SS13.
Tanak encountered the same heart-in-mouth moment on SS14 but, luckily for him, it happened with the flying finish in sight and did not slow him down too much.
As for Breen, he allowed further time to slip through his hands near the end and blamed it on “missing some confidence”.
A 2.3 second buffer mushroomed to 8.6 by the end of the final stage for Tanak, yet he felt it could – and probably should – have been more.
“Generally, it has been a very challenging day for me,” he said.
“It is a big shame that something from the outside [the tyres] is deciding [the battle] but, okay.
“We had everything planned to keep the [fresher] tyres for the last two stages, but we lost one and then on the last stage we had to use a tyre that had no studs, so it was very tricky to get through.”
While Breen remains firmly in contention for a first top-flight career victory, he will have to keep a look over his shoulder as a hard-charging
Thierry Neuville is looming large.
The undoubted star of Saturday, the Hyundai Motorsport driver promised to push for a podium and it came good late in the day even though he was not completely happy with the balance of his car or the performance of its brakes.
He vaulted past Toyota Gazoo Racing's Kalle Rovanpera on the concluding Saturday stage after the young Finn revealed he had “messed up” his tyre strategy.
Before being caught, Rovanpera had moved onto the back bumper of countryman and Hyundai rival Esapekka Lappi as they pulled into midday service.
In the process, he overtook Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans and demoted him to fifth.
Prior to Neuville turning up the wick and taking everyone by surprise, set-up changes on the road sections aimed at dialling out understeer appeared to do the trick for Rovanpera as he closed to within 10.5 seconds of the podium spot occupied by Lappi.
The young Finn – last year's Rally Sweden winner and eventual World Rally champion – clawed back another second immediately after lunch only to then be gifted third place when Lappi encountered bother.
A tyre delamination on the second from last test sent Lappi into a snowbank where he stayed for seven minutes.
Nearby spectators did come running to his rescue and succeeded in digging out his stricken I20 N Rally1 supermini but despite their best efforts, he plummeted to 12th.
He quickly got back on the horse and signed off with Janne Ferm in 11th, six seconds shy of WRC2's Nikolay Gryazin.
After a frustrating Friday that was beset with ride and handling gremlins, Evans chipped away at the job in hand.
In his pursuit of speed, he had some near misses and by his own admission was lucky to still be at the races after making not one but two visits into a snowbank on SS12 when he lost the rear of his Yaris.
With three Sunday stages to negotiate, “just getting through” is now very much his priority.
M-Sport Ford's Pierre-Louis Loubet is in a safe sixth overnight, meanwhile, as his process of learning every World Rally Championship round in 2023 continues.