Sébastien Ogier recorded a second successive Rally Croatia stage win, his 600th in the World Rally Championship, as he closed further on the lead battle on Friday’s penultimate stage.
Toyota’s seven-time champion is now just 9.1s adrift of Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who has led the rally since the opening stage.
Ogier and Neuville set identical split times with 1.24 miles of the 6.27-mile Mali Modruš Potok test completed.
However, Ogier was able to kick on in the final section of the stage and edged Neuville by just 0.3s to take back-to-back stage victories for the first time since he won the final two stages of this year’s Monte Carlo Rally in January.
He was also 2.8s quicker than his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans, who survived clipping the banking late in the stage and filled his rear-right wheel with debris. Ogier is just 1.4s behind second-placed Evans.
“I hope it will stay tasty, because that’s how it is,” Ogier said when asked about the lead fight. “We’re trying, not the perfect stage but it’s not easy when the conditions are like this.”
Neuville is still struggling to find the rhythm that allowed him to build an early rally lead and admitted that he was still “missing a bit of confidence” behind the wheel of his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC.
His team-mate Ott Tänak was fourth quickest for the third time in four stages, and has around 20 seconds either side of him in fourth overall.
Rounding out the top five both on the stage and in the overall classification is Tänak’s team-mate Craig Breen.
“I thought honestly that was better [than the time],” Breen said of his stage.
After Gus Greensmith beat him for the first time on the previous stage, top-flight debutant Adrien Fourmaux ensured that he was the fastest Ford Fiesta WRC on stage seven with the sixth-quickest time despite a similar incident to Evans.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and 2C Competition Hyundai’s Pierre-Louis Loubet set identical times to be joint-eighth fastest on the stage.
Mads Østberg was able to almost double his advantage at the front of the seven-car WRC2 field with his fourth victory from seven stages. His lead over Nikolay Gryazin has risen from 5.2s to 9.3s.
The top three is completed by Teemu Suninen, who set a stage time just 1.1s adrift of Østberg to further cement his third place in class.
The 2020 Junior WRC champion Tom Kristensson was running in fifth place on his WRC2 debut prior to the stage, but he stopped before reaching the first split.
Three-time European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz has moved into the lead of the WRC3 class, just 0.1s ahead of long-time leader Yohan Rossel.
But neither of them won the stage as Emil Lindholm took his second successive stage victory.
Just over half a minute covers the top five in the class.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 5m26.7s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.3s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +2.8s
4 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +3.9s
5 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +7.9s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +9.9s
Leading positions after SS7
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe 50m45.6s
2 Evans/Martin +7.7s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia +9.1s
4 Tänak/Järveoja +32.1s
5 Breen/Nagle +51.1s
6 Fourmaux/Jamoul +1m11.9s
7 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m17.6s
8 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (2C Competition Hyundai) +1m27.3s
9 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +2m18.4s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +3m00.7s