WRC - Katsuta leads after Friday morning in Sweden, rivals hit trouble

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2024 Rally Sweden - Friday morning

Takamoto Katsuta leads Rally Sweden after an action-packed opening to the country’s FIA World Rally Championship round this Friday morning, 16 February.

Driving a Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid, the Japanese ace moved ahead when returning world champion Kalle Rovanperä hit trouble on SS4 and dropped back. With Aaron Johnston co-driving, Katsuta leads Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi by 11.4sec at the midday service halt in Umeå.

Elfyn Evans, Katsuta’s factory Toyota team-mate, is third, 1.9sec down on Lappi with Adrien Fourmaux a fine fourth, 5.4sec adrift of Evans, for the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team.

After topping the order by 1.4sec through Thursday evening’s Umeå Sprint super special stage, Rovanperä again capitalised on more favourable stage conditions running seventh on the road this morning.

Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s flying Finn was able to extend his lead by winning Friday’s first test, #42 Brattby, renamed in memory of Craig Breen, who was fastest on both runs of the 10.76km stage aboard his number 42 Hyundai in 2023.

Beating Lappi (Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid) by 3.2sec, Rovanperä’s advantage over Katsuta stood at 4.9sec after SS2 as a result.

Although Rovanperä lost out to his compatriot Lappi on SS3 following what he described as a “horrible, embarrassing” drive, the double WRC title-winner was a mere 1.2sec slower than Lappi, which allowed him to extend his margin over Katsuta to 5.7sec.

But with Rovanperä spinning and breaking his radiator on SS4, Katsuta took the stage win – 0.7sec quicker than Evans – to lead Lappi by 11.4sec at the completion of a dramatic morning loop in the Swedish ice and snow.

"They were hard conditions,” Katsuta acknowledged after SS4. “I had to use the snowbanks sometimes, which was not always what I wanted to do.”

Lappi admitted a heavy brush with a snowbank on SS2 had knocked him off his stride and he lost more time striking a snowbank on SS4. Nevertheless, his second place on his first outing of 2024 represents an impressive showing.

"We touched a snowbank quite heavily, somewhere around the 10km mark,” Lappi said after SS4. “I saw Ott [Tänak] and Kalle stopped, which didn't really give me much confidence. It was quite messy; there was really no grip at all.”

Evans said: “They were difficult conditions. It was really hard to find the balance between pushing enough and being dragged into the loose snow on the outside. We tried to be clean but it wasn't easy.”

With a top-five finish his target, Fourmaux has once again been performing as instructed in the lead Puma, although his efforts were almost undone on SS4.

“We had a really close call [with Tänak],” the Frenchman explained. “We caught him in a really fast corner, flat, nearly 180km/h. He was just at the exit and I didn't see him before – I’m lucky he saw me.”

Tänak’s issue occurred when he spun and damaged the front-end of his Hyundai hitting a snowbank 18.5km into SS4. He was third prior to the start of the stage.

Losing time running first on the road, Rallye Monte-Carlo winner Thierry Neuville is 40.5sec off the lead in fifth. The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team driver said it was “not possible to go much faster”.

WRC2 contenders Oliver Solberg (Toksport WRT Škoda Fabia RS), Sami Pajari (Printsport Toyota GR Yaris), Georg Linnamäe (Toyota GR Yaris), Roope Korhonen (Toyota GR Yaris) and Mikko Heikkilä (Toyota GR Yaris) complete the top 10. Germany's Fabio Schwarz heads the FIA Junior WRC pack, while Jan Černý is first in WRC3, at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta Rally3.

Meanwhile, Grégoire Munster continued his Rally1 initiation with a learning-first approach in his Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid. However, the Luxembourg driver dropped four minutes with tyre damage on SS4, which he completed with damage to the front-left of his M-Sport entry.

Contact with a snowbank cost Lorenzo Bertelli (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid) significant time on SS3.