Thierry Neuville has blasted past Kalle Rovanperä into a comfortable third place on SS12 after the latter picked up a puncture, while Sébastien Ogier won the stage to extend his Monte Carlo Rally lead over Elfyn Evans.
The final leg of the Monte Carlo Rally consists of four stages, starting with Puget-Théniers – La Penne. With just a tire fitting zone before the day’s stages and no service break in the itinerary, any damage that could be picked up would be disastrous.
It also meant crews had to select their mix of tires for the entire day. While Toyota went for six studded tires for all four of its crews, Hyundai’s remaining two drivers took just four studs and two super-soft Pirellis.
The start of SS12 was delayed by 20 minutes as one of the zero cars became stranded on the test and had to be recovered. While the road appeared to be dry, hidden ‘black ice’ meant the conditions proved to be incredibly treacherous.
First man on the road Pierre-Louis Loubet made a similar mistake to the one he made on Friday less than a minute into the stage. His 2C Competition-run Hyundai squirrelled under braking, locked up and headed straight on, colliding with a small pile of snow.
“It was so strange it was like driving on slick tires on ice, I don’t understand,” Loubet said, with four studded tires bolted onto his car. “No grip at all, it was impossible to drive.”
Gus Greensmith was next to start and similarly caught out on the very first corner, running wide on a left-hand bend and kissing the bank with the front-right corner of his M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC.
However this belied the strong performance thereafter, as Greensmith – the only driver to have a cross-pattern of studded and snow tires – set the ninth quickest time.
“Oh my god was that slippery, I’ve never ever driven a stage as unpredictable as that ever in my life,” was Greensmith’s reaction.
Even before the stage began, the leaderboard was mildly altered after several drivers collected penalties for cutting a corner on SS4 on Friday.
“Much more slippy than expected, even places that were humid have went to ice,” said Neuville after going second fastest on SS12.
“OK, I did a good stage but there were no risks in there so I don’t know if it’s going to be enough.”
As it happened, it was more than enough as Neuville beat Rovanperä by 55.5s as Rovanperä. It means the fight for third is all but over with Neuville going from very slightly behind to now 53.5s ahead of the Toyota driver.
“There was something in the beginning of the stage, I believe I had nothing in the notes for the cut and I didn’t even take the cut,” Rovanperä said.
“It wasn’t a big hit but a small hit Really s***.”
Ogier was undeterred in his quest for an eight Monte win, and grabbed another eight seconds from his team-mate Evans to establish a 21s cushion at the front.
Evans, who was third fastest, echoed the thoughts of his competitors when he said it was “just impossible to judge the grip”.
Dani Sordo described the stage conditions as “on another level” to anything he has ever experienced in his long WRC career, but the Hyundai driver escaped any drama as he holds fifth place. With team-mate Ott Tänak not starting today, Sordo needs to bring his car home to bank important manufacturer points for his team.
Takamoto Katsuta is “focusing on just finishing the rally” and remains sixth in his Toyota Yaris WRC, 1m32.2s ahead of Greensmith’s Fiesta in eighth overall.
Between them is Andreas Mikkelsen’s WRC2-leading Toksport-run Škoda. His closest class rivals Adrien Fourmaux and Eric Camilli rounding out the overall top 10 but are over two minutes behind Mikkelsen.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 8m47.6s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.7s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +8.0s
4 Oliver Solberg/Aaron Johnston (Hyundai) +15.0s
5 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Volkswagen) +15.5s
6 Dani Sordo/Carlos del Barrio (Hyundai) +17.3s
Leading positions after SS12
1 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) 2h25m19.5s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +21.0s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1m09.5s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2m03.0s
5 Sordo/del Barrio (Hyundai) +2m33.6s
6 Katsuta/Barritt (Toyota) +5m13.8s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene (Toksport Škoda) +6m09.9s
8 Gus Greensmith/Elliott Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +6m46.0s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +8m10.5s
10 Eric Camilli/François-Xavier Buresi (Citroën) +8m19.4s