Sébastien Ogier is just one day away from a third World Rally Championship victory of the 2021 season although team-mate Elfyn Evans grabbed the final Saturday stage win of Rally Italy.
Evans, in second place, took 1.5 seconds from Ogier to reduce his deficit to under 40s, but with 38.9s to make up on the championship leader it will be Evans’ focus on Sunday to consolidate his second position.
Thierry Neuville is the threat behind him, but Evans holds a handy 22.7s advantage over the third-placed Hyundai man after pulling another couple of seconds clear on SS16.
“Obviously it’s not where you want to be, fighting over the last podium places but of course it’s Sardinia and these things happen,” said Evans.
Neuville was similarly frustrated, lying 1m01.6s behind Ogier’s lead.
“The gap is quite big,” he said in reference to his deficit to Evans.
“I had a try on some of the stages but I don’t have the speed. We tried some things, we changed the dampers [but] we don’t get it all together.
“I struggle to get the performance we need despite having the feeling we are quite on the edge sometimes [so] I can’t do much more.”
Ogier meanwhile was far more upbeat, admitting “so far it’s been a perfect weekend for us”.
“We were really strong yesterday, today we did everything we had to do as well so we have to finish the job tomorrow,” he said.
Takamoto Katsuta is on course to equal his career best WRC finish of fourth, although third looks unlikely for the Toyota junior as he’s a sizeable 2m59.6s behind Neuville. He therefore confessed: “This is noy the way to get fourth place. I’m not happy but this is life.”
Kalle Rovanperä made it through Saturday unscathed, but his focus was mainly on Sunday’s powerstage as he had little to fight for after his suspension-related retirement on Friday.
Teemu Suninen was in a similar situation but faced a tougher task as the first car on the road, sweeping the loose gravel from the top of the surface to the benefit of his rivals.
The M-Sport driver was subsequently slower than the leading Rally2 cars on some of the stages which are beginning to occupy places in the overall top 10.
Indeed, there are more Rally2 machines in the top 10 than World Rally Cars with Jari Huttunen leading the charge in his Hyundai i20 R5.
However Mads Østberg is looming large behind him, just 2.7s behind the reigning WRC3 Champion with the WRC2 class win firmly in his sights.
“I’ve used all my power today to repair the car many times and also to drive as fast as possible and it’s been a very demanding day,” Østberg said. “But we are within striking distance for sure.
“We obviously didn’t play some road position tactics but we can pretend we did,” he joked, in reference to the fact he dropped behind Huttunen and Marco Bulacia in the running order because of his road section incident after the first loop.
WRC3 leader Yohan Rossel is on course for his second category win of the season in seventh overall, 37.8s clear of Pepe López who has 2019 Junior WRC Champion Jan Solans for close company; just 9.7s in arrears.
Bulacia completes the top 10 and WRC2 podium in his Toksport Škoda.
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 9m26.9s
2 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +1.5s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2.0s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Mikko Lukka (Toyota) +16.5s
5 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford) +19.2s
6 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +22.5s
Leading positions after SS16
1 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) 2h50m33.1s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +38.9s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1m01.6s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +4m01.2s
5 Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (Hyundai) +8m09.6s
6 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +8m12.3s
7 Yohan Rossel/Alexandre Coria (Citroën) +8m57.5s
8 Pepe López/Diego Vallejo (Škoda) +9m35.3s
9 Jan Solans/Rodrigo Sanjuan (Citroën) +9m45.0s
10 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo Ohannesian (Škoda) +10m13.1s