Sébastien Ogier is closing in on a first World Rally Championship victory since he was crowned world champion at the end of 2021, as Thierry Neuville stole second from Kalle Rovanperä on the Salou superspecial.
Saturday in Spain was very much Ogier’s day, winning three of the five stages in the Tarragona hills. Even when he was only third-fastest on the second pass of El Montmell his lead still increased greatly, as Rovanperä had a nightmare stage and dropped over 10s.
“It’s been a good one, definitely. I feel happy tonight,” Ogier told DirtFish, ending Saturday with a 20.7s lead over Neuville. “The feeling with the car was great and I could enjoy every stage today and increase the gap most of the time, so it’s been very positive.”
Behind them, Neuville’s dogged persistence in chasing Rovanperä for second finally paid off on the superspecial, tying with team-mate Ott Tänak for fastest time and nicking the place by 1.4s.
Neuville had felt somewhat lost trying to find more pace from his Hyundai, complaining that no amount of changes to his i20 N Rally1’s settings was delivering more speed.
But it was a woeful start to the rerun of El Montmell by Rovanperä that provided Neuville the opportunity to pounce, which he took with both hands to reduce the gap to 0.4s. A win on the Salou superspecial by Neuville then demoted Rovanperä to third.
“There was some settings on the car which went wrong on the startline and I couldn’t get them right, so we were losing time with the hybrid system,” explained Rovanperä of his El Montmell difficulties. “Then a big mess in the cockpit to fix it on the stage. I think I overheat the brakes on the warmup and then downhill we lost the brakes.”
Ott Tänak looked to be in a somewhat solitary fourth place, having fallen off the back of Neuville on Friday as he ran into repeated hybrid boost issues.
Potentially a little bored with being in a holding pattern on Saturday morning, Tänak put the hammer down on the second pass, and nearly lost fourth place altogether after a huge moment on El Montmell.
“Afternoon I was pushing quite a bit outside of my comfort zone,” said Tänak. “We had one quite, let’s say, it wasn’t a moment anymore, it was off. But somehow we got back on the road. It was quite a miracle.”
He’d arrived at the finish line with his front-left brakes on fire and lots of long grass lodged in the front grille – but he’d survived, and brought his i20 to the end of the day. But there was one final scare for Tänak in Salou, with the bonnet going up briefly after the finish.
“We just have some electrical trouble, we can’t switch the lights, just to make sure the battery doesn’t run flat.”
Dani Sordo’s fifth place briefly looked under threat this morning as he seemed to be devoid of pace, giving Elfyn Evans a sniff of the place he’d lost through a puncture on Friday afternoon.
But in the afternoon Sordo rediscovered his form, taking a barnstorming stage win on the second pass of El Montmell that blew the socks off the entire field – he’d gone five seconds faster than the entire field.
Evans felt he was “going round in circles” and simply had nothing in his pocket to challenge Sordo for the top five, such was his lack of confidence in the car. But he didn’t have much to worry about behind him either, as Craig Breen in the lead M-Sport was struggling even more than the third Toyota.
Breen ended the day 12.1s behind Evans and wasn’t optimistic about closing that gap on Sunday, having struggled all day to get the front-end of his Ford Puma to turn in.
Overheating the front tires had led to chronic understeer that Breen had been able to mitigate somewhat in the afternoon but ultimately failed to dial out completely.
Takamoto Katsuta left Adrien Fourmaux in his rear view mirror during a short-lived battle for eighth place, Katsuta making the position his own as he edged ahead during the majority of Saturday stages. Indeed, his progress was sufficient to close the gap to Breen in seventh down to 18.9s after the Salou superspecial.
Fourmaux wasn’t too disheartened to be down in ninth, though, having spent the last two rallies on the bench after being removed from the M-Sport lineup for Greece and New Zealand.
“It was a good day for me,” he said. “I was really consistent in my times. For sure we’re not pushing in every corner, so for sure we’re losing time compared to the others. We are five seconds slower in every stage all day but at least we are consistent.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet had a tricky day, not helped by carrying an extra spare compared to his rivals all day long. He’d been concerned about tire wear and so had a sixth hard tire in his selection, which he fitted for the El Montmell test to little benefit.
He has very little to gain or lose – Loubet is 10th, 45.5s behind Fourmaux.
Jourdan Serderidis is still circulating in his privateer Ford Puma Rally1 and provided a brief moment of entertainment on the Salou superspecial, skating wide after the boardwalk section. He demolished a handful of plastic markers, then clipped a tree and stalled, before going on his way.