World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier ended Saturday’s Monte Carlo Rally stages with a 13-second lead over team-mate Elfyn Evans, as Kalle Rovanperä bested Thierry Neuville to maintain Toyota’s stranglehold on the podium places.
The final stage of the day was a second pass of the La Bréole – Selonnet test that ran under darkness earlier in the morning.
Ogier was dominant on the first pass, beating Evans by 17.8s to blast back into the lead of the rally. But Evans counter-attacked on the repeat run, edging Ogier – who had a “clean drive” – by 1.3s to narrow his deficit to the leader to 13s.
It sets up a fascinating showdown between the Toyota pair, with Evans 43.8s ahead of the third Yaris of Rovanperä.
“I needed that really, it’s been a bit of a frustrating day,” Evans admitted. “I’ve not really been on the money.”
Asked if he can catch and overhaul his team-mate on Sunday, Evans replied: “We keep the pressure on.”
In the fight for third, Rovanperä was just 1.4s ahead of Neuville heading into La Bréole – Selonnet 2 and looked to be losing time through the early splits, but the Finn responded to extend his advantage to seven seconds, outpacing Neuville’s Hyundai by 5.6s.
“That sounds good!” said Rovanperä when he learned he had beaten Neuville.
“I had a problem with my ear plugs so Jonne [Halttunen, co-driver] had to scream all the time so I could hear the notes,” he added, explaining his time loss early on the stage.
“Maybe in the beginning I was not so comfortable but when I got used to the new sound it was better. I was faster than Thierry so it’s enough.”
Neuville was content though, declaring his relationship and system with new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe was “constantly improving”.
“It was not a big attack but it was quite a nice rhythm in the stage,” he added. “I didn’t take any risk.”
Dani Sordo was “very slow” on Saturday’s last test, feeling he “didn’t want to take any risk for nothing” as he occupies a lonely fifth spot.
With Ott Tänak retiring before the stage due to two punctures on two stages earlier on Saturday, Sordo now needs to guarantee Hyundai some manufacturer points.
Takamoto Katsuta and Andreas Mikelsen find themselves locked close together on the leaderboard in a battle neither driver is particularly bothered about having.
Katsuta’s mission is to learn more about the wintry conditions, and he remains on course to score his career-best WRC finish with sixth overall. His previous best was seventh on last year’s Monte Carlo Rally.
After setting the sixth-fastest time on SS11, Katsuta surmised: “I am trying to drive like relaxing and no stress, just natural driving. Most important thing is we are here, this was the biggest aim for us today.”
Mikkelsen is in a dominant WRC2 lead in a Toksport Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, boosted by a front-left puncture for M-Sport rival Adrien Fourmaux on the previous stage before service.
The former factory Volkswagen and Hyundai driver is 39.6s behind Katsuta’s Toyota Yaris WRC despite driving a less powerful car.
“The approach right now is we have a big lead and we just have to take care of it as good as possible,” Mikkelsen said.
“Like this stage now we took it really, really steady. For us it’s quite an easy task now, we just have to get to the end so we’re just enjoying.”
Gus Greensmith is in relative no-man’s land in eighth overall for M-Sport, having suffered a confidence-shattering Friday.
Greensmith admitted the final stage “felt OK” despite a stall in a hairpin as he sought to recover some confidence.
Fourmaux, who had slipped to ninth following his SS10 puncture, dropped into the clutches of WRC2 rival Eric Camilli (pictured above) because of his issue, but responded handsomely on SS11 with the seventh-fastest time – quicker than both Pierre-Louis Loubet and Greensmith – to put 17.6s between himself and Camilli at the foot of the top 10.
“He is pushing hard,” commented Camilli when seeing Fourmaux’s time on the board that was two seconds quicker than his own SS11 effort.
Loubet started the day outside the top 20 overall after locking up and crashing into a rock face on the last stage on Friday.
Off the back of setting a career-best second-fastest time on Saturday’s second test, Loubet finished Saturday in 17th overall after going 10th quickest on SS11.
The service park now travels 131 miles south to Monaco for Sunday’s final four stages.
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 11m59s
2 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +1.3s
3 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +7.8s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +13.4s
5 Oliver Solberg/Aaron Johnston (Hyundai) +15.8s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +16.8s
Leading positions after SS11
1 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) 2h16m31.9s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +13s
3 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +56.8s
4 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1m03.8s
5 Sordo/del Barrio (Hyundai) +2m11.3s
6 Katsuta/Barritt (Toyota) +4m43.1s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene (Toksport Škoda) +5m22.7s
8 Gus Greensmith/Elliott Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +6m14.6s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +7m36.5s
10 Eric Camilli/François-Xavier Buresi (Citroën) +7m54.1s