Sébastien Ogier set a blistering time on the Monte Carlo Rally’s final Friday stage to move to within just 7.4 seconds of his rally-leading team-mate Elfyn Evans at the event’s halfway stage.
Evans began the day in third place but was immediately up to second after the opening test in the morning as Hyundai’s overnight leader Ott Tänak slid back to fourth. Although new rally leader Kalle Rovanperä then lost time and position because of a 10s road penalty for checking into the SS4 time control late, his Toyota team-mate Evans remained second as Ogier blasted past him and into the lead.
But Evans profited when Ogier was thwarted by a front-left puncture on Friday afternoon’s SS6, setting the fastest time to open up a 20.4s lead over Tänak as Ogier fell to third.
Ogier therefore headed into Friday’s final test with a 23.4s deficit to Evans, and managed to claw back a substantial 16s on just one stage to propel himself right back into the mix.
Evans admitted he had “a very difficult balance” to strike between pushing to protect his lead but driving sensibly so as not to take unnecessary risks.
“I was too careful in some places,” he said. “The car has a mind of its own sometimes, not specifically this car but the conditions. It’s a great time from him [Ogier].”
Tänak was demoted to third by Ogier’s charge, losing 20.9s on SS7 as his day of niggles continued. Earlier issues included a lack of turbo boost on the exit of hairpins, but on the final stage a misted up windshield was the culprit.
“Same problem as Monza,” he said. “I have no visibility in the screen so it gets complicated then.”
Rovanperä had found himself down in fifth place after sliding into a field and losing over 30s on Friday’s penultimate stage, all but ejecting himself from the victory fight. But in outpacing Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville by 9.4s on SS7, he moved back ahead into fourth place and is 53.1s shy of Evans.
“We need to fight back,” Rovanperä said valiantly. “I did a stupid mistake but for sure it was difficult this loop. I just tried a bit too much in the beginning but then I knew the limit.”
Neuville, who has now completed seven stages with new co-driver Martijn Wygaedhe, trails Rovanperä by six seconds but admitted he wasn’t pushing 100% but is getting increasingly happier with how he and Wygaedhe are working.
“To be honest that was a really nice stage for us,” he commented after ending the day in fifth. “Martijn did an incredible job and I was more confident as well.”
Dani Sordo set a strong second-fastest time to round out his Friday, and admitted “he wants to do more like this”. The third Hyundai is 50.5s behind Neuville and 1m49.6s away from the lead after a difficult rally thus far.
Pierre-Louis Loubet became the second Rally1 retirement of the rally on Friday’s final test as he locked the brakes of his Hyundai on sodden asphalt and careered head-on into a rockface.
The Corsican’s i20 Coupe WRC was left parked on the exit of a right-hand hairpin; the rear poking out onto the rally route creating a hazard for the Rally2 runners behind.
Loubet’s exit relieved the pressure on Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta but the Japanese didn’t appear to need the help as he set the fourth-fastest time on the stage, 0.1s quicker than Neuville.
“This one I wanted to show what I can do, but still I am missing some confidence so I can push more,” he said.
“I have to remember I have to finish this rally and get the experience for the future.”
Katsuta’s Yaris WRC is eighth overall but has closed to within 14.2s of WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen, who is holding seventh spot in his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
Mikkelsen was at one with the conditions and his cars, saying “it’s really predictable everything” despite the unpredictability of the rally.
Adrien Fourmaux is second in WRC2 and ninth overall, 32.9s ahead of his M-Sport team-mate Gus Greensmith who is piloting a Ford Fiesta WRC; a car Fourmaux will get to drive in later in the season.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 14m09.8s
2 Dani Sordo/Carlos del Barrio (Hyundai) +1.3s
3 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +4.6s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +13.9s
5 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +14.0s
6 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +16.0s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Evans/Martin (Toyota) 1h33m57.5s
2 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +7.4s
3 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +25.3s
4 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +53.1s
5 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +59.1s
6 Sordo/del Barrio (Hyundai) +1m49.6s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene (Toksport Škoda) +3m50.8s
8 Katsuta/Barritt (Toyota) +4m05.0s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +4m37.9s
10 Gus Greensmith/Elliott Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +5m10.8s