Sébastien Ogier is on the brink of an eighth World Rally Championship title as Elfyn Evans stalled twice on the dramatic penultimate Monza Rally stage which also caught out Takamoto Katsuta.
Evans had begun the stage just 0.5 seconds adrift of rally leader Ogier but exited it 7.6s behind, suffering his first poor stage of the weekend.
The Toyota driver suffered a strange stall on a gravel section and also overshot a corner.
“I just locked up the brakes and it went straight ahead, couldn’t get the car turned and it stalled,” he explained. “And then we had another stall so not a good stage.”
Evans dropped 16.8s to stage winner Thierry Neuville but only 7.1s to Ogier who was very relaxed on SS16 – not prepared to take any risks with an eighth world title in sight. Any podium place will be enough for Ogier to secure the crown.
“I was a bit on the safe side but it was a clean stage,” Ogier said.
Katsuta meanwhile had been sixth overall in his Toyota but lost the rear under braking for a chicane on the circuit. He was therefore carrying way too much speed, spun 180° and clouted a concrete barrier with the front-left of his Yaris WRC which then pitched him into a full-360° spin, head-on into a haybale.
He therefore crawled through the remainder of the stage, the front-left wheel clinging on for dear life at a 45° angle to the wheel arch. The error cost him 1m05.6s to stage winner Neuville and dropped him to seventh behind Teemu Suninen.
Suninen had been trying to fend off Gus Greensmith, but Greensmith’s pursuit of Suninen looks to be over as he lost the rear of his M-Sport Ford on some gravel entering a chicane, suffering a half-spin.
“I was trying my absolute best but just a bit too hot through the gravel, and spun it,” Greensmith rued.
The mistake cost Greensmith 8.9s to Suninen, but he had been 2.3s down on the splits anyway before he spun. Suninen is now sixth and 18.7s clear of Greensmith, and 15s ahead of Katsuta, with just the powerstage to go.
Oliver Solberg wasn’t immune from the drama either and made a similar mistake to Greensmith in the same section, executing a pirouette to evade any contact with the haybales.
He is secure in fifth now after Katsuta’s “stupid” mistake, with Dani Sordo and Neuville running in three-four formation for Hyundai.
Evans’ issues have moved Sordo significantly closer to second place though, now trailing by just 14s.
Kalle Rovanperä went for the unorthodox choice of four snow tires on his Toyota, despite the weather being dry throughout the Monza Rally weekend.
He has been driving with one hand metaphorically tied behind his back this weekend, asked to just minimise risks to ensure Toyota doesn’t miss out on the manufacturers title.
But even with that factor considered, Rovanperä’s pace on SS15 was weak – 35s slower than the stage winner – indicating that his tire decision wasn’t a wise one.
Asked why he had taken such a bold decision, Rovanperä replied: “Because why not? I cannot say anything about that.”
Adrien Fourmaux meanwhile found it “difficult” as first car on the road, attacking the stage that was using sections that had only been run in reverse before this weekend. That meant on the gravel sections where he was braking, the road was cut up as cars had accelerated hard there in previous days.
Serraglio will be repeated later at 11.18am local time as the rally and championship-deciding powerstage.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 10m10.1s
2 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) +3.3s
3 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai) +8.3s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +9.7s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +11.0s
6 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +14.0s
Leading positions after SS15
1 Ogier/Ingrassia 2h29m00.3s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +7.6s
3 Sordo/Carrera +21.6s
4 Neuville/Wydaeghe +35.9s
5 Solberg/Edmondson +1m29.2s
6 Suninen/Markkula +2m19.9s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +2m34.9s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +2m38.6s
9 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Haltunnen (Toyota) +4m13.4s
10 Andrea Crugnola/Pietro Elia Ometto (Hyundai) +8m44.9s