Sébastien Ogier has ended the first full day of the 2023 World Rally Championship firmly in control, leading Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanperä by 36 seconds overnight.
Ogier has been in total command of the Monte since Thursday night, and he continued that stage-winning form into Friday despite the loss of his hybrid unit for two thirds of Friday morning.
To compensate for the loss of additional power Ogier glued his racing boot to the throttle and still won all of the morning’s stages – and in fact four of the six tests across Friday.
The only times he was pipped to a stage win was on the afternoon’s opener when Elfyn Evans bettered him by half a second and then the final stage of the day when Rovanperä secured his first stage win as the defending world champion.
“I’m very satisfied,” Ogier said. “On this one the risk of puncture was a bit higher so I took it easy, just happy to bring the car home tonight.”
All rally long, Rovanperä, Neuville and new M-Sport signing Ott Tänak have been glued to each other – initially in a fight for third that then became second when Evans picked up a rear-right puncture on Friday’s third stage.
But as the afternoon progressed it became a two-horse race as Tänak struggled to keep pace in the ultra-dry conditions.
“It’s been very, very racy” Tänak assessed, “and from our side let’s say the car is comfortable to drive but not racy enough. Let’s see we have a few days, hopefully we can improve.”
Tänak ended the day fourth, 16.3s adrift of his old team-mate Neuville and just 8.1s clear of Evans who lost comfort from his tires on Friday’s final stage.
“It’s been OK but obviously a lot of disappointment,” Evans rued, reflecting on his earlier puncture.
Team-mate Rovanperä meanwhile holds Neuville to a 1.9s deficit in second overall.
“Obviously we can’t match the times, I don’t know why. I’m trying hard,” Neuville said. “We had similar tire choices so I knew we should be up, but we are not.”
Hyundai team-mates Dani Sordo and Esapekka Lappi had it worse though as neither driver could find much speed from their i20 N Rally1s – and neither knew why either.
As a result, Takamoto Katsuta leapfrogged Lappi for seventh on the afternoon’s first stage and ended Friday just 2.9s in arrears of sixth placed Sordo as well – 24.6s ahead of Lappi.
Pierre-Louis Loubet is the only manufacturer Rally1 driver outside the top 10 overnight, languishing down outside the top 20.
After losing his power-steering on Friday morning’s final stage and not being able to fix it given there was no mid-day service break, Loubet could have just retired but took the brave decision to carry on – even using snow tires to save his allocation of softs and potentially giving him easier turn-in without power assisted steering.
“If you want to train to do something very hard, you have to drive a car without power-steering it’s quite good,” Loubet said.
In WRC2, Nikolay Gryazin has been utterly dominant – holding a 29.7s lead over Yohan Rossel. Stéphane Lefebvre is third, another 17s back.
But although it’s Gryazin that leads, Oliver Solberg has been the quickest driver on most of the day’s stages. Solberg however is out of contention after a puncture on SS2, and is ineligible for WRC2 points this weekend.