Sébastien Ogier has shot into the lead of Rally Spain with a commanding stage win on Les Garrigues Altes, with Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanperä falling from first to third.
Mud-filled cuts on the first two stages had hampered Ogier somewhat, running seventh in the road order and coming up against more road pollution than his rivals ahead of him on the road.
But a cleaner surface and more consistent road conditions on stage three allowed Ogier to push hard, passing both Rovanperä and Thierry Neuville for the top spot.
“It’s hard work; getting old, you need to sweat for it!” he quipped at stage end.
Before Ogier had come along it initially looked as if Neuville might take the lead, as without Ogier’s push Toyota would have been easily bested by the Hyundais.
Neuville was 4.9s faster than Rovanperä to take a slim 1.6s advantage over him in second place, staying where he was in the classification as Ogier flew past both of them.
Surprisingly, Neuville indicated he’d been nowhere near his best: “Still far away [from the limit], to be honest.”
Despite going second fastest, Neville still felt he was much slower than he should have been, his car not doing what his right foot was asking of it.
“Conditions are tricky but I’m running a less aggressive mapping or something, I don’t know,” he said. “I have no power out of the corners. I’m struggling a lot with the drivability.”
Rovanperä’s drop to third wasn’t a huge surprise for the man himself, who aside from the middle of the stage felt he’d struggled: “This one was a bit tricker than the first two ones. I felt I didn’t have so much grip at the beginning and at the end I had some understeer issues.”
Ott Tänak has lost close to 10 seconds to the leaders over the last two stages and the reason for his struggles finally emerged on the third stage – his hybrid boost was malfunctioning.
“Somehow we managed to get the hybrid working a bit; not all the time but most of the time,” he explained, suggesting that he’d had no boost at all on the previous test.
It’s not the first time this season Tänak has had this problem, which led to a typically sardonic summary of his situation: “It’s a bit better on Tarmac when there is more power.”
Elfyn Evans remains in touch with the lead group in fifth place, 9.9s off Ogier but thus far unable to quite match his other team-mates in the senior Toyota team.
Any hopes of a first WRC win at home are fading fast for Dani Sordo, who is already looking settled in a lonely sixth place. Tire selection had left Hyundai’s part-timer scratching his head between stages.
“It’s not good. I don’t know,” said Sordo of his pace. “It’s difficult to choose the tires for stages. It was quite humid on the stage but the soft was moving a lot. I carried two hard tires on this stage but it was not dry enough. We are not last, so it’s OK.”
Takamoto Katsuta is pulling away from Craig Breen in the battle for sixth, as the lead M-Sport Ford driver was left ruing the state of his pacenotes.
“I may as well have stayed at home,” said a downbeat Breen. “The notes are so slow. I’ve never done this rally in the dry, never, and I’ve made them so, so cautious.”
Adrien Fourmaux is now the second-best Ford Puma driver, climbing to ninth and reducing the gap to Breen to 6.8s as his other team-mates struggled.
A puncture left Pierre-Louis Loubet utterly bemused, costing him almost a minute while not understanding what had happened.
“I don’t know, I have no idea,” said an exasperated Loubet. “After the chicane the tire exploded. I did the brake, everything was fine, I turn, the tire… I don’t understand.”
Loubet’s woe promoted Greensmith back to 10th but he wasn’t much happier. “We’re trying but it’s not getting any better,” he surmized.