Thierry Neuville put further distance between himself and Sébastien Ogier in the fight for third place on Rally Estonia, as Hyundai team-mate Ott Tänak again went fastest on SS15.
Neuville and Ogier were split by 9.4 seconds ahead of the second stage of Saturday afternoon after Neuville took a good chunk out of Ogier on the first test following service.
The Hyundai driver kept up the intensity on SS15 as he beat Ogier by 2.8s, creating a double-figure gap – which stands at 12.2s – between himself and the World Rally Championship leader for the first time this weekend.
Neuville felt he was “struggling a little bit with the understeer in the ruts,” but was aware “for everyone it’s the same”.
Elfyn Evans also got the better of Ogier on the stage to close to 16.9s behind, edging him by 1.2s on the test.
“Not really enjoyable driving in such big ruts,” said Ogier, who will leave Estonia as the championship leader regardless of how the battle plays out. “No-one can be comfortable driving in there.”
Home hero Tänak agreed, although that sentiment didn’t seem to correlate with his stage time. Tänak won his fifth stage from six so far on Saturday, this time by 2.6s over Kalle Rovanperä, but didn’t find the going easy on Mustvee.
“It’s difficult to know what is the right thing to do: stay in the line or stay out the line,” said Tänak.
“It’s a compromise, but it’s hard to know if the ruts are taking you into the forest or round the corner.”
Rovanperä continued to edge closer to chalking up his first WRC victory. The Toyota driver’s lead grew again to 45.6s ahead of Craig Breen.
“I was now slowing down quite much and the time was still quite good, so for sure we need to slow down more,” he said.
Breen said he was not interested in trying to dice with Rovanperä, instead opting to keep his Hyundai “very much in the middle of the road, not taking any risks”.
That showed on the timesheets as Breen was only sixth fastest, 6.1s off Rovanperä’s effort.
Gus Greensmith cut a dejected figure after SS15 following a differential issue on the previous stage. On the latest test one, he got crossed up through one of the chicanes and had to take an escape road to avoid hitting anything substantial.
“I don’t even know why I’m trying to be honest,” Greensmith said. “I should just be getting the car to the end of the day.”
Team-mate Teemu Suninen found the stage “surprisingly rutted” but managed to outpace Pierre-Louis Loubet by 6.9s and Greensmith by 14.5s.
Suninen therefore heads Loubet by 58.3s in sixth overall.
Andreas Mikkelsen spun towards the end of the previous stage, but the Toksport Škoda driver maintained his WRC2 lead in ninth overall, one spot behind WRC3 leader Alexey Lukyanuk.
Mikkelsen’s pirouette allowed Mads Østberg to close up to 11.3s behind his rival, but that gap blew back up again on SS15 as Østberg collected a rear-right puncture and the tire worked its way completely off the rim.
It compounded a taxing weekend for Østberg, who has suffered a variety of niggles aboard his Citroën C3 Rally2.
“I never give up, but [it] seems to be a little bit too much at times,” Østberg said.
“We have come back from everything that happens but I will try to come back this weekend, obviously not this weekend.”
Østberg’s problem has created a finely poised battle for the WRC2 podium places though, as he now has just 1.7s over Adrien Fourmaux.
Fourmaux jumped past Mikkelsen’s team-mate Marco Bulacia on SS15, by 0.9s, but strangely, the usually chirpy M-Sport driver was downbeat because of the rough, rutted stage conditions.
“I just want to finish this loop because it’s terrible,” he said. “It’s a strange feeling because normally I’m really enjoying; on some corners yes but most of the time it’s really hard.”
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 6m24.8s
2 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2.6s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +4.7s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +6.3s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +7.5s
6 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +8.7s
Leading positions after SS15
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen 2h00m46.7s
2 Breen/Nagle +45.6s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +1m29.5s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m41.7s
5 Evans/Martin +1m58.6s
6 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +5m40.2s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (Hyundai) +6m38.5s
8 Alexey Lukyanuk/Yaroslav Fedorov (Škoda) +7m25.1s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (Škoda) +8m07.1s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +8m51s