Sébastien Ogier has stamped his authority on Rally Spain with an emphatic stage win, topping the Querol test by 2.6s to extend his lead to almost double digits.
Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanperä is now 9.7s adrift and appears unlikely to attempt to challenge for the lead, suggesting Ogier was taking more risks than the newly crowned world champion was willing to take.
“For sure the guys are a bit faster but I tried to push, I’m driving quite clean but I’m still in a comfortable pace,” said Rovanperä of his effort.
“You have to take big risks like the others, so we’re still comfortable.”
There was a brief scare a few turns from the end though, as an unidentified object appeared in the middle of a blind corner that Rovanperä worried might break his car.
“We had a scary moment in the last corner, there was some block in the middle of the road; I was sure it would break our car but it was soft. I don’t know what was that, it was scary, I had to brake.”
Hyundai’s lead charger Thierry Neuville had won the day-opening test and sounded hungry to push on and catch the Toyotas. But he sounded far less optimistic after the second stage, especially when asked if he could hunt down Ogier for the lead.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Neuville replied. But he did make further inroads on Rovanperä for second place, clawing back another 1.7s to reduce the gap overall to 4.5s.
Ott Tänak is in an increasingly lonely fourth place, unable to keep pace with Neuville but miles clear of the battle for fifth place.
Another 3.4s were lost to his team-mate, which he put down to missing this stage last year after he’d crashed out: “I didn’t do it last year so actually the last part is quite tricky. For sure we can do quite a bit better.”
Elfyn Evans is now closing rapidly on fifth-placed Dani Sordo, carving 5.1s out of the third Hyundai and reducing the gap to Sordo to a mere three seconds.
A livid Sordo was frustrated at his own lack of pace: “I’m trying to go fast but times are not so good.”
It’s Sordo’s first asphalt rally of the season – but he wasn’t interested in leaning on mitigating circumstances.
“I don’t like excuses,” Sordo said. “I’m not fast. I have enough experience in Tarmac to go fast, car is nice, times are not there.”
Evans had briefly looked under threat from Craig Breen behind after Saturday morning’s opening stage but as the lead Ford Puma continued to struggle with understeer, the gap increased to 6.2s.
“I struggled a bit with the front again in there, definitely felt like I was overheating the front,” came the familiar tune from Breen, which has become a recurring them throughout the rally.
A bold choice by Takamoto Katsuta before hitting this morning’s stages paid dividends, as he continued to pull away from the M-Sport trio behind him.
“I had a good breakfast. Some engineers are not so happy with the breakfast I’m eating but, yeah, pretty good for me!” Katsuta quipped.
Adrien Fourmaux may be 6.5s behind Katsuta but he’s continuing to dominate the three-way intra-team M-Sport battle over ninth, once again beating both Gus Greensmith and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
“You know, this stage, I really like it, so I was enjoying it,” said Fourmaux after taking another 1.8s out of Greensmith to build his advantage to 7.9s. “But I was definitely losing the tires, it wasn’t easy at the end, so I had to manage it, but we had a clean stage.”
Loubet did not strike the same tone, though, as he went 7.7s off Fourmaux’s pace: “It’s a very nice stage but the condition was very tricky on this one. On hard tires it wasn’t easy.”