Sébastien Ogier’s Rally Italy pace is showing no signs of relenting as he grabbed a third stage win in succession to edge further ahead of Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and team-mate Elfyn Evans.
Ogier took the lead when Ott Tänak retired just before service and has accepted the gift in style by setting three fastest stage times on the bounce.
On SS14, he beat next-quickest Thierry Neuville by 1.8 seconds, Evans by 2.6s and second-placed Sordo by 3.3s to nudge his lead advantage up to 24.6s.
The seven-time champion was taking nothing for granted though.
“I prefer to be in the position I am now, but it’s still a very rough afternoon, very abrasive afternoon so I try to drive very smooth. Target is to stay out of trouble,” he said.
By going fourth fastest, Sordo – feeling like his Hyundai was understeering – lost a little ground to Evans but still has a seemingly defendable 15.1s gap.
Neuville got the better of Evans on SS14 in their battle though, albeit by a mere 0.8s to close himself up to 12.6s behind the Toyota driver.
“I drove like hell but I don’t think the time is good enough,” Neuville said, before knowing he would end up second fastest on the stage.
“There’s a lot of cleaning of course but I think I should be faster than the cars in front [than I am].”
Evans echoed his rival’s comments: “To be honest we should’ve been a bit faster as the grip was cleaning a lot in there,” he assessed.
Takamoto Katsuta held onto his fifth place, comprehensively beating both Kalle Rovanperä and Teemu Suninen – who are both competing under Rally2 regulations – on the stage, largely as a result of road cleaning.
But the Japanese also compared well with those ahead of him on the leaderboard, losing just 5.4s to Neuville which might explain the Hyundai driver’s comments at the stage-end.
After losing his WRC2 lead because of a time penalty for arriving to service late, due to wheel drama on the road section, Mads Østberg’s pursuit of new leader Jari Huttunen is continuing to progress.
The Citroën pilot was 4.2s faster than the Hyundai on SS14 to trail by 12.6s with two stages remaining on Saturday and six in total.
“For sure it’s hard now, especially with the stages that both of us know but we will just have to try for sure,” said Østberg. “It’s still a good gap but I push.”
The duo are sixth and seventh overall due to the high attrition rate in the top category, and both were quicker than Rovanperä and Suninen’s WRC cars on the test.
The WRC3 drivers didn’t get to complete SS13, but they had a clean run through SS14 and it meant the top drivers rose back into the overall points positions.
Class leader Yohan Rossel is eighth overall, while Pepe López is ninth and just ahead of Jan Solans.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 9m42.5s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1.8s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +2.6s
4 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai) +3.3s
5 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +7.2s
6 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +16.4s
Leading positions after SS14
1 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) 2h30m41.7s
2 Sordo/Rozada (Hyundai) +24.6s
3 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +39.7s
4 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +52.3s
5 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +2m17.5s
6 Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (Hyundai) +7m17.7s
7 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +7m30.3s
8 Yohan Rossel/Alexandre Coria (Citroën) +8m02.2s
9 Pepe López/Diego Vallejo (Škoda) +8m45.5s
10 Jan Solans/Rodrigo Sanjuan (Citroën) +8m55.8s