Esapekka Lappi added to his hefty advantage with a clean run through Rally Sweden’s second leg on Saturday as he closed in on his first FIA World Rally Championship victory in six years.

By completing leg two in front, the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid driver provisionally scored 18 WRC points, which will be added to his season tally providing he reaches the rally finish on Sunday afternoon under new rules for 2024.

Starting Saturday’s action leading the ice and snow event by 3.2s following Friday’s drama-packed first leg, Lappi came under early pressure when Takamoto Katsuta slashed his advantage to 0.9s with a determined charge through the day-opening run through Vannas. But Lappi was left in the clear when Katsuta plunged his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid into a snowbank 3.4km from the start of SS10 while pressing his Finnish rival for top spot.

Despite his comfortable margin, which stood at 1m31.6s after SS10, Lappi admitted that finding the balance between attacking and holding his lead was far from easy. Like his fellow drivers, Lappi also had to make preserving his tire studs on increasingly damaged roads a key focus. But the one-time WRC event winner completed Saturday’s running without incident and will take a lead of 1m06.3s into Sunday’s deciding three-stage leg.

“I’ve been trying to save the tires the whole afternoon and still be smart in terms of the pace,” Lappi said of his Saturday efforts. “I’m not so used to it so it’s not the easiest job in the world. But it’s all under control.”

While Lappi heads into Sunday with his sights fixed on victory, Katsuta will be hoping to avoid leaving Sweden empty handed. The Japanese driver’s target are the seven points up for grabs for topping leg three’s classification, plus the five points on offer for the Wolf Power Stage fastest time.

Of his Saturday morning exit, a dejected Katsuta said: “We did an OK time on the first one to gain the time and a much closer gap between me and EP . I wanted to continue pushing, maybe even more to gain more time but obviously I was trying very hard, and one corner I carried a bit too much speed and snapped the rear and hit the snowbank. We were stuck and couldn’t get out.”

On a day that produced five stage winners from the seven scheduled stages and also marked M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson’s 68th birthday, the team’s Adrien Fourmaux excelled aboard his Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid.

After demoting WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg in the battle for third on SS9, Fourmaux moved into second when Katsuta stopped on the next stage. The Frenchman further underlined his potential by landing his fourth WRC career stage win on SS11 to cement second place in the overall order, which he maintained through the afternoon to land 15 interim points. That was despite a scare in the closing portion of SS15 when he charged a snowbank after being distracted by his teammate Gregoire Munster’s stricken Puma.

“I’ve seen the video and I thought it was the corner before,” Fourmaux said. “When I realized they were there it was too late. What a good day — a rollercoaster, up and down, but I’m happy, P2.”

Having been hampered by opening the road for much of Friday afternoon, Elfyn Evans missed out on winning SS9 by 0.3s before his third-fastest time on SS10 elevated him onto the final step of the provisional podium, 11.4s behind Fourmaux. But after the Toyota driver “scooped a snowbank on the inside of a corner” and “lost loads of power” as a result, he headed back to midday service 16.2s behind the flying Frenchman. With one eye on tire stud retention through stages 12-15, the Welshman is 16.7s down on Fourmaux in third.

Completing Friday’s running in 11th overall due to fuel pressure problems costing him 40 seconds in penalties, Thierry Neuville overtook Solberg for fourth on SS12 before setting the fastest time on SS13 during an afternoon spent perfecting the setup of his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid. He was fastest on the day’s final three stages.

Behind fifth-placed WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg, Sami Pajari took second in WRC’s second tier category and sixth overall when Georg Linnamae spun his Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 nearing the finish of SS11. The Estonian slipped to fourth in class following his moment but demoted WRC3 champion Roope Korhonen on SS14 before closing to within 0.2s of Pajari on SS15. Mikko Heikkila, who recovered from a spin on SS15, and Lauri Joona complete the top 10.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak and Toyota’s world champion Kalle Rovanpera restarted on Saturday morning after they crashed on Friday. Tanak won SS9 from first on the road, 1.2s faster than Rovanperä. The Finn set the pace on SS10, going 2.8s quicker than Tanak, who complained of a lack of visibility in a forest section. The duo found the road surface on the repeated stages a particular handful during the afternoon loop, with Rovanpera reporting a brake issue at the completion of SS14.

Sunday’s deciding leg begins with back-to-back visits to the significantly altered Vastervik test ahead of the Wolf Power Stage — the same layout as the Umea stage from Saturday evening. A separate classification for the Sunday stages awards points to the top seven (7-6-5-4-3-2-1). The fastest five drivers on the Wolf Power Stage also score points (5-4-3-2-1).

Leading positions after Saturday:
1. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N 2h 03m 52s
2. A Fourmaux / A Coria FRA Ford Puma +1m 06.3s
3. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +1m 23.0s
4. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +2m 22.1s
5. O Solberg / E Edmonson SWE / GBR Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +4m 01.1s
6. S Pajari / E Malkonen FIN Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 +5m 15.1s

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