Neuville held a 16.1s rally lead on Friday morning after early leader Sebastien Ogier suffered a wheel failure on his Toyota during stage 2, but the Belgian faced a stern challenge from Toyota’s Evans in the afternoon.
Neuville, piloting a Hyundai carrying a tribute to the late Craig Breen, witnessed his lead reduce to 5.7s over Evans heading into Saturday.
M-Sport-Ford’s Ott Tanak completed the loop third overall, 30s adrift, with Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi sitting fourth a further 3.4s back.
Ogier managed to recover from his early trouble to sit fifth (+1m23.7s) ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet, Takamoto Katsuta and world champion Kalle Rovanpera, who also lost more than two minutes to a wheel failure in stage 2.
After a morning run under clear skies, the clouds gathered for the afternoon. It prompted all of the crews barring Ogier, Evans and Rovanpera to take at least two wet compound tyres for the loop.
Ogier resumed his blistering pace from the morning to win stage 5, the first test of the afternoon, which was held in dry conditions.
The Frenchman took his fourth stage win of the rally by 4.8s from team-mate Evans, who made inroads into Neuville’s 16.1s rally lead, as the latter dropped 2.4s to the Welshman.
Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
Tanak and Rovanpera clocked identical times to sit third fastest, 5.8s shy, the pair appeared to benefit from set-up changes made at midday service.
“Definitely better than the morning. Now the car is how it should have been from the start, we made a mistake with the set up [in the morning],” said Rovanpera, who had struggled for outright pace on the muddy asphalt roads.
Lappi also showed signs of improved pace in the sister Hyundai, but there was drama for Katsuta, who suffered a small spin which cost him valuable time.
Light rain fell prior to the start of stage 6 to create damp conditions and a tyre choice headache.
Tanak, Loubet and Katsuta elected to fit the two wet tyres they were carrying, but it proved to be an incorrect decision with the road not wet enough to gain an advantage, despite drizzle falling towards the end of the test.
Lappi, equipped with a mix of hard and soft tyres, came through to chalk up the stage win as the Finn pipped the charging Evans by 0.7s.
“We believed in what our team said [about the tyres] and it was the right call,” said Lappi, who moved ahead of the struggling Tanak on wets, into third overall.
Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1
Photo by: M-Sport
However, a strong drive from Evans was the key talking point after Neuville came through 6.4s slower than Lappi, which resulted in his overall rally lead being cut to 8.0s.
Ogier managed to claw his way back to fifth overall after finishing third fastest, 1.9s behind stage winner Lappi.
Neuville responded to Evans’ charge in stage 7, adding 0.4s to his overall advantage after posting the second fastest time in the 11.11km test.
The Belgian revealed at stage end that it was the first test of the rally to date where he had full confidence in the car.
Tanak won the test after edging Neuville to the fastest time by 0.3s to score his and M-Sport’s first stage win of the rally. The Estonian managed to reclaim third overall after Lappi dropped 3.7s in the stage.
“The decision on the last one was very stupid, but anyway, we try to improve. I still think we can be better so let’s go step by step,” said Tanak.
Rovanpera matched Ogier’s fourth fastest time in the stage to continue his recovery from set-up-related issues in the morning to cement eighth overall.
Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1
Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport
The day’s final stage belonged to Evans, as he closed to within 5.7s of Neuville with his first stage win of the event. Evans pipped Rovanpera on the road by 0.9s, while Neuville dropped 2.7s.
Ogier was lucky not to lose more than 9.3s after suffering a puncture in the final sector of the stage, his second tyre deflation of the day.
“On three tyres it was not so great, puncture again.”
Asked where it occurred, he replied: “I’m just driving with Pirelli basically.”
Yohan Rossel held the WRC2 class lead after ending the day ninth overall.
The rally continues on Saturday with crews facing another eight stages comprising 116.6 kilometres.