Sébastien Ogier takes a 16-second lead into the final day of the Monte Carlo Rally after a controlled performance out front, but a monstrous time from Kalle Rovanperä on the final stage keeps him under pressure.
Ogier has led the 2023 World Rally Championship season opener ever since it began and, after a dominant Friday, has been able to ease his foot off the throttle and just control the gap out front.
But his lead might not be as comfortable as it’s long seemed as Rovanperä, Ogier’s chaser in-chief, and turned up the wick on the day’s final stage.
Thierry Neuville thought he’d staked his claim to be driver of the afternoon. Up until Saturday’s mid-way point, Toyota hadn’t been beaten to any of the rally’s 11 stage wins but Neuville saw about changing that with back-to-back scratch times on SS12 and SS13.
But Rovanperä was simply sensational in the darkness of Saturday’s final stage, stretching his advantage of Neuville to 16s overnight after a blistering performance that was 6.7s better than anyone else could manage – but did diminish Elfyn Evans’ hopes of climbing back onto the podium.
But would 16s be enough for Ogier to defend on Sunday?
“I think so, yes,” he replied. “It was the most dangerous stage for punctures so I took it easy like on the first pass – I’m happy this stage is behind me now.”
Evans had been Ogier’s closest challenger until he punctured on Friday and fell to fifth, but the Toyota driver did move up to fourth over the course of Saturday at the expense of M-Sport’s new recruit Ott Tänak.
Tänak’s pace wasn’t as hot as Evans’ anyway, but his challenge was dented by an intermittent power-steering problem that left him with what he described as “heavy steering”.
He’s 40.8s adrift of Evans overall, 1m37.3s down on rally leader Ogier.
Takamoto Katsuta finds himself in no man’s land with one day to go, not close enough to Tänak to seriously contemplate a charge for a top five finish but a healthy 53.1s clear of the struggling Dani Sordo.
Sordo’s Friday confused him as he felt things were OK but the times didn’t tally. But on Saturday Sordo was simply unhappy – his mood not helped by a hybrid issue in the afternoon.
It cost him dearly in the final stage in the twisty sections, where the extra punch of 130bhp would’ve been greatly appreciated. He shipped over half a minute to the stage winner, choosing just to drive through rather than push.
New team-mate Esapekka Lappi is just 2.6s behind Sordo in eighth ahead of Sunday’s four stages, but would’ve overhauled the Spaniard were it not for a rear-right puncture on the first stage after the tire fitting zone.
Lappi survived a slide early on the final stage of the day in the dark, but typically didn’t register it.
“Did I?” he asked. “We had one caution which was on a fast section and I didn’t need that, because I had it from the first pass and I made it myself on the recce but then I forgot to take it away – I lost a lot of seconds there,” he added.
“But today has been a good day. We improved the car a lot, it just fits better for me now and now we can work with this.”
Like Ogier at the head of the overall rally, Nikolay Gryazin has been in control of WRC2 ever since stage one.
But a puncture for the Toksport Škoda driver obliterated his lead, giving him just 15.7s in hand over Yohan Rossel.
Pepe López and Stéphane Lefebvre have enjoyed an entertaining scrap for the final podium place, trading positions all afternoon. But it’s López that holds the spot overnight, 2.9s to the good.
However it was fifth placed Erik Cais that put his name up in lights on the day’s final stage, setting the eighth fastest time overall in his Fabia RS Rally2 – 6.3s quicker than Sordo’s Rally1 Hyundai!
That stage win ensured the new Škoda has won every single stage of its debut WRC event so far.