Thierry Neuville has given Hyundai a light reprieve by earning the team’s first stage win of the World Rally Championship season, but Toyota’s Elfyn Evans’ bad event got worse with a puncture.
Briançonnet / Entrevaux is a dress rehearsal for the powerstage later on Sunday which offers bonus points for the five fastest crews.
Evans had a lot of hopes pinned on that points-paying test as his rally was wrecked on Saturday when he slipped off the road and lost 20 minutes.
But his chances of grabbing the full five bonus points to get his season up and running now look a lot slimmer as he and Scott Martin were forced to stop and change a flat tire early on SS15.
While the first pass of the test doesn’t offer points, it leaves Evans with no usable spare wheels for the next two stages which will force to him be that little bit extra cautious – and that little doubt can make all the difference when on a maximum attack.
“I hit something on the inside of one corner but nothing of any worth and all of a sudden puncture alarm, so as I have nothing to lose obviously I had to change it and then make sure I got through with no issue,” he said.
Neuville meanwhile is now the sole remaining Hyundai following Oliver Solberg’s retirement on the road section after Sunday morning’s opener.
He holds sixth overall, 1m11.5s behind Greensmith, but is still struggling with various issues, this time a differential problem.
“I have a lot of diff slip, I have a problem with my rear diff,” he said. “When the road is flat it’s OK but as soon as I get a lot of bumps there’s lots of wheelspin.
“I try to do a reconnaissance for the next loop, hopefully we get some powerstage points but it might not be easy.”
However it was Neuville that stopped the clocks fastest, defeating rally leader Sébastien Ogier by 1.9s.
Ogier’s lead is up to 24.6s as Loeb “didn’t take too many risks” but neither did Ogier.
“Same, I really was careful about punctures on this one,” said Ogier. “It was a clean stage, still tricky in places, still a lot of grip change.”
Seventh-placed Takamoto Katsuta agreed with Ogier, feeling “it was not so easy to guess” where the grip was and where it wasn’t, but the Toyota Next Generation driver was a strong third fastest on the stage, 3.6s down on Neuville.
Craig Breen was fourth fastest, 2.2s down on Katsuta, to protect his grip on third place – a result he said would be the perfect way to begin his season.
Asked if he would go for powerstage points later, Breen responded: “For the first time in my career I actually need championship points, so let’s see.”
Kalle Rovanperä’s fourth place is secure so he backed off significantly on SS15, preferring to save his tires for a potential powerstage push in a few hours. But the Toyota driver isn’t sure if he’ll opt to go for it or not.
“Nothing special really, I was just saving the tires,” he said of his slow pace, as he dropped half a minute.
“But the condition looks quite tricky on the powerstage so let’s see if we can try something there or not, I don’t know.”
Gus Greensmith didn’t plan to take it easily but was backed into a corner as he felt the revision to his pacenotes, made by his route note crew, were far too conservative.
“In my notes I had a lot of frost and the grip was fine,” he said.
“So we can have a look at the onboard and change it but there were some places I was braking and I really didn’t need to.”
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 8m50.4s
2 Sébastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota) +1.9s
3 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +3.6s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +5.8s
5 Sébastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +6.5s
6 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +8.7s
Leading positions after SS15
1 Ogier/Veillas (Toyota) 2h40m04.4s
2 Loeb/Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +24.6s
3 Breen/Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +1m30.8s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2m34.6s
5 Greensmith/Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +6m50.1s
6 Neuville/Waydaeghe (Hyundai) +7m52.9s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda) +10m45.7s
8 Erik Cais/Petr Tesínský (M-Sport Ford) +11m28.7s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Škoda) +12m30.5s
10 Katsuta/Johnston (Toyota) +12m38.7s