Kalle Rovanperä moved into conservation mode at the head of Rally Estonia as he lost 0.4 seconds to second-placed Craig Breen on SS16, but his lead still stands at a handsome 45.2s.
Raanitsa was a smoother affair than the two stages that preceded it on Saturday afternoon; Sébastien Ogier describing the situation before “as not really about driving, it was just about surviving”.
But with big gaps opening out between most of the runners in the overall order, nobody but Ott Tänak was really pushing particularly hard.
Tänak won the stage again – his sixth in succession – by 6.1s over Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville, while leader Rovanperä dropped his pace with just fifth-fastest time.
“For sure I could be so much faster, I was just careful,” he commented, as Breen echoed that sentiment.
“We’re just trying to do the best we can,” Breen said.
Neuville pulled another three seconds clear of Ogier to head his rival by 15.2s, holding onto the final podium place in third.
Ogier (pictured below) picked up his pace on SS16 relative to the previous two tests but still couldn’t match Neuville, though the Hyundai driver was carrying two hard compound tires – and Ogier none – which may be having an effect.
Elfyn Evans was put in the shade by his team-mate having made ground on the previous two tests. Evans lost 3.3s to Ogier to trail by a touch over 20s again.
First on the road, Gus Greensmith, has been struggling with the handling of his Fiesta WRC on Saturday afternoon with a suspected differential issue.
He seemed to groan at points throughout the stage, indicating things were still difficult aboard the #44 Ford, but asked how the handling of his Fiesta was at the end of the stage, Greensmith was diplomatic.
“The stage itself wasn’t as bad as the other ones,” he swerved, “bit of a nicer flow for the drivers.”
M-Sport team-mate Teemu Suninen appeared to be carrying a gremlin too. Suninen, who lies sixth overall ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet’s 2C Hyundai, explained: “On one long straight I couldn’t get sixth gear.”
He was 4.3s slower than Greensmith on the stage but still got the better of Loubet to extend his overall advantage to north of one minute.
Pace isn’t Loubet’s concern though. Instead, he simply wants to get to the end of the rally without retiring for the first time this season.
The fluctuating tale of Mads Østberg’s Rally Estonia continued on SS16, but this time he hit a high point as he grabbed an impressive 10.5s from WRC2 leader and title rival Andreas Mikkelsen.
It was timely, as Østberg had fallen into the clutches of the battling Adrien Fourmaux and Marco Bulacia because of his puncture on the previous stage.
However, Fourmaux and Bulacia were equally up for a scrap. Fourmaux lost just 0.8s to Østberg, but Bulacia managed to better him by 2.2s.
Østberg therefore clings onto his second place but only just – Bulacia lying a mere 0.4s in arrears as 2.5s split all three drivers.
“It was a good run for me, the car is amazing to drive,” Bulacia said. “Happy with our pace and we need to continue like this.”
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 10m46.6s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +6.1s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +9.1s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +10.7s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +11.1s
6 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +12.4s
Leading positions after SS16
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen 2h11m44.4s
2 Breen/Nagle +45.2s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +1m24.5s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m39.7s
5 Evans/Martin +1m59.9s
6 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +6m02.9s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (Hyundai) +7m14.3s
8 Alexey Lukyanuk/Yaroslav Fedorov (Škoda) +8m02.4s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (Škoda) +8m56.1s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +9m29.5s