Sébastien Loeb won his second Monte Carlo Rally stage in succession to whittle the gap to leader Sébastien Ogier down to 2.8 seconds.
The nine-time champion’s effort on Friday morning’s opener was overshadowed by an accident for M-Sport team-mate Adrien Fourmaux, but Loeb continued that form and was supreme on SS4.
On a stage where the Hyundais picked up the pace, Loeb beat Ott Tänak by 0.8s and Thierry Neuville by 0.9s to win the stage, with rally leader Ogier only fifth fastest behind his team-mate Elfyn Evans.
“I’m feeling well with the car, I tried to push hard in these two stages [but] it’s quite tricky,” he said.
“Some places you have a lot of grip, some places you have absolutely nothing, but I’m confident in the car so I tried to push.”
Ogier was relaxed, but did not know he had lost more time to Loeb when speaking to the stage-end reporter.
“I’m a little bit on the safe side at the moment in these conditions but so far so good,” he said.
The i20 N Rally1 had not looked as settled as M-Sport’s Puma Rally1 or Toyota’s GR Yaris Rally1 so far this weekend but its pace was encouraging on SS4.
But Neuville was quick to point out that “nothing has changed”, even if he did make some set-up adjustments between SS3 and SS4 that “made it better but it’s scary”.
“Chassis-wise we have a lot of surprises so we need to work on that,” he added.
Tänak was without hybrid power on the previous test but that problem had been cured for SS4.
The gaps reduced behind Evans (pictured below) in between fourth to seventh places, as Craig Breen halved his deficit to M-Sport team-mate Gus Greensmith to 0.7s, and the Hyundais of Neuville and Tänak closed up to Breen too.
Greensmith felt he did not have “a very good stage, I have more pace than that” while Breen admitted his speed was being hampered by compromised pacenotes.
“My notes are just way too cautious trying to anticipate with one gear less [compared to last year] what gear you should be in and I got it completely wrong,” he said.
“It’s very, very encouraging because I feel like we’re at 60-70% of where we need to be.”
Neuville lurks just 2.6s behind his former Hyundai team-mate Breen in sixth with Tänak only 7.2s in arrears of Neuville.
Takamoto Katsuta, Oliver Solberg and Kalle Rovanperä have been cut adrift of the top seven with eighth-placed Katsuta – aware a cautious drive can reap rewards on the Monte – nearly half a minute down on Tänak’s Hyundai.
Solberg is ninth, suffering a spin at a hairpin on SS4 that restricted him to the slowest Rally1 time. He ended the stage just 0.6s clear of Rovanperä, who has struggled consistently on the season opener so far.
“I’m trying to learn all the time how to drive it,” said Rovanperä of the new hybrid GR Yaris Rally1. “After yesterday we made some set-up changes and it seems to be working.”
Solberg was less happy, admitting over the intercom after he had cleared the stage that he could not trust his i20 N Rally1 and that his performance was “s***”.
“You see all the smoke in the car, I’m crying before the stage and I can’t breathe before the stage and I lost total concentration at the beginning I couldn’t focus, I was busy,” Solberg said.
“And no gear shift at the end. I’m just here to finish, get experience; I’m trying as good as I can but the whole team has been working so hard and did a great job to get the car here, it’s just sad we can’t show it.”
1 Sébastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) 7m40.1s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +0.8s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.9s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +1.4s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota) +2.7s
6 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +3.2s
Leading positions after SS4
1 Ogier/Veillas (Toyota) 43m41.3s
2 Loeb/Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +2.8s
3 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +11.1s
4 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +35s
5 Breen/Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +35.7s
6 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +38.3s
7 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +45.5s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +1m14.2s
9 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +1m25.6s
10 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +1m26.2s