Sébastien Ogier has snatched the lead of the Monte Carlo Rally away from Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans at the first time of asking on Saturday with a superlative performance as Ott Tänak punctured and dropped from third to fifth.
La Bréole – Selonnet (labeled SS9 as SS8 Montauban-sur-l’Ouvèze – Villebois-les-Pins on Friday was canceled before the rally began due to the lockdown curfew in the region) was the first true winter challenge of the event, with the stage featuring several severe ice and snow patches.
As a consequence, all of the top drivers selected Pirelli’s studded tire designed for such conditions, with the four Toyotas taking six with them and the Hyundai and M-Sport Ford cars five studs plus a slick tire.
Ogier trailed Evans by 7.4 seconds after seven of the event’s 14 stages, claiming back a colossal 16s on Friday’s final test as he looked to reverse the damage done by a stage six puncture.
The seven-time Monte Carlo winner was similarly inspired on Saturday morning’s opener, stealing another 17.8s away from Evans to vault into a 10.4s lead.
Could Evans have done more? “Yeah,” he said. “I didn’t think it had gone that great at the end, I was too careful.”
Tänak meanwhile, who was 25.3s adrift of the lead before Saturday, is now 1m38.1s away after collecting a front-left puncture early on the test.
“Very much in the beginning,” he confirmed when asked when he picked up the flat tire. “I immediately had a spin and next corner there was a loose stone on the inside and of course I hit it.
“It’s a beautiful morning…”
Kalle Rovanperä is now back up to third because of Tänak’s woe, albeit 1m08.3s shy of the lead, to re-establish a Toyota 1-2-3 despite lamenting his own lack of bravery in the changeable conditions.
Starting the stage with a six-second barrier over Thierry Neuville, Rovanperä now enjoys a 25.6s advantage over the Hyundai driver who “went straight on a corner” early on the test, setting the tone for a tricky run.
“It was a difficult stage,” Neuville said. “We had to find a rhythm and it didn’t work for very long.”
Dani Sordo slithered off the road, albeit briefly, on the last quick kink of the stage just meters from the finish in his Hyundai but he managed to straightline it through the field and get through unscathed.
Nevertheless Sordo was rapid, setting the third-quickest time on SS9 and remains safe in his sixth position overall, now a lot closer to the pack with his team-mate Tänak 23.3s ahead.
M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith – who was bereft of all self-confidence on Friday – appeared to be in better shape on Saturday as he went fifth fastest, 37.7s slower than Ogier.
Takamoto Katsuta, who “was just very, very careful”, lost 3.9s to Greensmith on the stage but remains 1m01.9s clear in eighth overall.
Toksport WRT’s Andreas Mikkelsen, who declared he has “the best gravel crew in the world” with adapted pacenotes he felt were “spot on” is seventh overall, leading WRC2 by just over a minute now in his Škoda.
Adrien Fourmaux is his closest rival and lies ninth overall, 14.8s ahead of World Rally Car-driving team-mate Greensmith.
Following his head-on collision on Friday’s final stage, Pierre-Louis Loubet returned to action but is now completely out of contention to score championship points.
However the 2C Competition didn’t miss a complete stage so will still garner valuable experience. He took it steady as first on the road in SS9, and set the slowest Rally1 time.
“A big thanks to the team because they rebuilt the car in three hours even during the storm, so thanks to them,” Loubet said, referencing a severe storm that ripped through the service park on Friday night.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 13m16.2s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +17.8s
3 Dani Sordo/Carlos del Barrio (Hyundai) +19.2s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +22.6s
5 Gus Greensmith/Elliott Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +37.7s
6 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene (Toksport Škoda) +39.4s
Leading positions after SS9
1 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) 1h47m21.1s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +10.4s
3 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +1m08.3s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1m33.9s
5 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +1m38.1s
6 Sordo/del Barrio (Hyundai) +2m01.4s
7 Mikkelsen/Floene (Toksport Škoda) +4m22.8s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +4m39.2s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +5m26.3s
10 Greensmith/Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +5m41.1s