Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala has taken the lead on Rally Sweden following Friday morning's opening loop of four stages, although team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen isn't far back.
Latvala moved to the top of the leaderboard in SS10, the first run through the 22.76 km Rammen 1 test, when Mikkelsen made an error and went off into a ditch in fourth or fifth gear. Although the Norwegian was fortune to get out and the incident only cost him a few seconds, it was enough to drop him to second.
The battle, however, remains very close and following SS11, the two VW men returned to Hagfors for the mid-day service split by just 1.6 seconds.
“It has been an interesting morning, with a big fight,” Latvala reflected. “We'll keep going, try to be fast and try to be smart - we'll need all those things. Towards the end of Rammen I wasn't too happy and was a bit too wide in places, but overall we're doing OK.”
Overnight leader Sebastien Ogier meanwhile has dropped out of contention in his Polo R WRC, after he put his car into a snowbank in SS8. The Frenchman lost over 4.5 minutes as a result, dropping him from P1 to P20. He was then quickest in SS9 and SS10, hauling himself up to 13th, but he remains around 1.5 minutes off a place in the top-ten.
Of the rest, Citroen's Mads Ostberg is currently on course for the final place on the podium, albeit 25 seconds adrift of the two VW's ahead. He has a 7.3 second cushion over M-Sport WRT man Mikko Hirvonen in fourth, while Ott Tanak is fifth, 9 seconds further back.
"This morning has been pretty good. On the first stage [SS8] the conditions were really tricky, but other than that it's been OK," Hirvonen said. "For me, there is already a lot of gravel out on the stages. It is not so rutted, but you can see a gravel line emerging through the snow. Obviously, the grip is good, but it's already really tough on the tyres.
"We can still take the fight [to Ostberg]. The pace is there and we're not taking any unnecessary risks. We just need to keep it on the road and take the time back a little here and a little there with no silly mistakes. The car feels really good, so there is no need for us to make any changes in service."
"We had some problems with the pacenotes," Tanak revealed. "We're losing [the rhythm] in a couple of places, but this is all new for Raigo [Molder, my co-driver] so we just need to be patient. We might not be able to push to the same extent as we did on yesterday's shorter stages, but we are definitely improving and that is the main thing.
"We had a spin on a narrow section of SS8 which lost us a lot of time, but it's getting better all the time. We're working hard to improve and we'll continue like that into the afternoon."
Next up is Hyundai's Juho Hanninen, with Pontus Tidemand, Kris Meeke, Henning Solberg and Robert Kubica rounding out the top-ten, the latter just 0.1 seconds up on Crash.net
columnist Elfyn Evans in P11.
"We changed the balance [of the car] for this morning – just to try something different – but with the conditions we had it didn't really work to our advantage," Kubica remarked. "There was a lot less grip than I was expecting so the first stages [this morning] were very difficult. There was less ice and quite a lot of snow. For the last stages there was already quite a lot of gravel so the second pass will be quite interesting. But, it's always good to be discovering new things – new roads, new stages and new conditions, all good."
"It's a different day from yesterday with some longer, really fast stages, but the challenge remains," Evans added. "It was really slippery out there this morning and it has been quite difficult to really commit in the fast sections. If I'm honest, I could have pushed a bit more, but we're learning and improving so that is the main thing.
"There was already some gravel through the first pass, so this afternoon will be interesting for sure. Either way, it is all good experience for us and we're determined to make the most of it."
In WRC2, Yazeed Al-Rajhi remains comfortably out front. His lead was cut to just 13.8 seconds following the opening test, but Jari Ketomaa has since dropped back and post-SS11 they are separated by 26.5 seconds. Fredrik Ahlin is now third in the class, after Yuriy Protasov damaged his front suspension in Lesjofors 1, costing him over 2 minutes.
As for retirements, Thierry Neuville is thus far the only big name to have gone out. The Belgian hit a rock in SS8 and while he got to the end of the test, he was unable to go any further. It is not yet known if he will be able to re-start on Saturday.
Friday's action now continues with a repeat run through this morning's four stages, before competitors tackle the short Karlstad super special this evening. SS12, Lesjofors 2, is due to start at 13.08 hours local time [12.08 hours UK time].
Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 11 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1hr 14m 02.3s
2. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 01.6s
3. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 26.6s
4. Mikko Hirvonen
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 33.9s
5. Ott Tanak
M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 42.9s
6. Juho Hanninen
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +01m 09.2s
7. Pontus Tidemand
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 53.9s
8. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +01m 55.0s
9. Henning Solberg
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 14.9s
10. Robert Kubica
RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 34.0s
11. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 34.1s
12. Craig Breen
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03m 18.3s
13. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +04m 07.3s
14. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +04m 25.5s
15. Jari Ketomaa
Drive DMACK WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +04m 52.0s
16. Fredrik Ahlin
Ford Fiesta R5 +05m 49.1s
17. Khalid Al-Qassimi
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +06m 25.7s
WRC2 standings after Stage 11 (Top 3):
1. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC 1hr 18m 27.8s
2. Jari Ketomaa
Drive DMACK WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +00m 26.5s
3. Fredrik Ahlin
Ford Fiesta R5 +01m 23.6s
SS8. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC Hit a rock
all times unofficial