Sébastien Loeb has taken a swipe out of Sébastien Ogier’s Monte Carlo Rally lead as Thierry Neuville ran into major problems with a broken front-right damper.
Neuville revealed to DirtFish at the tire fitting zone that he’s competing with just three dampers all day, but that rogue damper finally let go early on SS12.
It meant that Neuville, who had been fourth, lost over 3m30s on the stage and has slid to sixth place – but is hopeful he can repair the damper which pierced through the hood of his Hyundai.
Out front, Loeb edged Ogier by 0.4 seconds to reduce the leader’s advantage to just five seconds with one more stage to go on the penultimate day.
“It’s quite tight, the battle is quite intense,” Loeb said. “I tried to push as hard as possible, couldn’t do much more.”
But tantalizingly, Loeb has gone for studded tires for the next stage – which has large sections of ice – while Ogier went for winters.
“Hopefully mine is the right choice but it shouldn’t make too much difference,” Loeb added.
Craig Breen now finds himself in a podium position after Elfyn Evans got stuck on the previous test.
“Obviously we just need to try and maintain it,” Breen said. “It’s a strange third place, the pace hasn’t been anything amazing.”
That was certainly the case on the second pass of Saint-Jeannet – Malijai as he dropped 3.7s to stage winner Kalle Rovanperä, but there was a reason for that.
“We went on all used tires to try and save some for tomorrow, so not surprised to have dropped a little bit of time,” Breen explained.
Rovanperä suddenly has something to fight for having been a bare footnote on proceedings for the first two days. Starting the stage fifth, the Toyota driver is now fourth due to Neuville’s capitulation.
“Yeah of course soon as we started to feel a bit more comfortable in the car I always try to be a bit faster,” said Rovanperä, who won the stage by 0.2s.
“This one is a really nice stage, it’s the best stage of the rally for me it’s so nice. Maybe I could’ve been a bit more brave but quite OK I think.”
Takamoto Katsuta hasn’t been able to match the pace of his fellow Toyota driver, losing another 12.7s on SS12.
But the Toyota Next Generation driver has made no major mistakes and by keeping his nose clean stays on course to better his sixth place from last year as he has now climbed to fifth.
“It’s easier than the first pass but some corners are more dusty and some gravel is coming from the inside. It’s all fine,” he said.
Behind Neuville in seventh, Gus Greensmith made it to the end of SS12 too despite an engine issue that wrecked his morning.
“We’ve got to be careful with what we’re doing so I’m just being careful, especially over the big cuts. Just get the car home and we can fix it and go again tomorrow,” he said.
Despite hinting to DirtFish that he might retire due to the smoke that is infiltrating the inside of his Hyundai, Oliver Solberg made it through the stage with the fumes still “very strong”.
“I’m trying to keep focused with this smoke, it’s not so easy,” he said. “There was one jump in this stage I wanted to do it and I did it, so I’m happy.”
Evans completed the stage unscathed as he begind his recovery mission, losing 20 minutes with his trip off the road on SS11.
“[It was a] pretty clumsy mistake to do a mistake like that where the grip was high and everything so… it’s how it goes sometimes I guess,” he surmised.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 9m23.8s
2 Sébastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +0.2s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota) +0.6s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +3.7s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +4.7s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +12.7s
Leading positions after SS12
1 Ogier/Veillas (Toyota) 2h05m23.5s
2 Loeb/Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +5.0s
3 Breen/Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +1m10.6s
4 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +2m08.8s
5 Katsuta/Johnston (Toyota) +2m28.3s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Waydaeghe (Hyundai) +5m33.5s
7 Greensmith/Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +6m11.7s
8 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +6m58.1s
9 Yohan Rossel/Benjamin Boulloud (Citroën) +7m21.0s
10 Erik Cais/Petr Tesínský (M-Sport F0rd) +8m59.5s