Dani Sordo has closed right up on Sébastien Ogier’s third place on Rally Spain but Thierry Neuville yet again extended his lead, securing a clean sweep of stage wins on Saturday morning.
Ogier had held a 6.2-second advantage over Sordo’s Hyundai before SS9 but a bad run for the seven-time champion and equally an inspired one for Sordo readdressed the balance.
Sordo beat Ogier by six seconds on El Montmell in a battle that could have major connotations in the fight for the World Rally Championship title.
That’s because Ogier’s only remaining rival – Elfyn Evans – is already ahead in the overall classification and could steal yet more points away if Ogier drops back.
But Evans – who led Rally Spain early on – has been trounced by Neuville across Saturday so far. Beginning the day just 0.7s behind, the Toyota driver lost another 2.3s to his rival on SS9 to sit nine seconds off the lead heading into service.
“It was not too bad in here, the run was quite OK,” Evans said.
“Still struggling a bit with car rotation, just can’t get on the power early enough and get on my line so need to work on that.”
Neuville, who pipped Sordo to the stage win by 0.3s, said: “I had a good stage. Was a little bit more careful in this one, there were a lot of cuts and I don’t want to risk the punctures.
“Still struggling with some understeer, I can’t get rid of it. Without that we could be faster so we need to work on it.”
Kalle Rovanperä revealed he picked up a puncture on SS8 and so didn’t “take any big risks on the cuts” on SS9.
However the 20-year-old ran into strife, arriving at stage-end with the front grille of his Toyota infested with grass.
“We had a huge moment on the stage, maybe one of the biggest ones I’ve ever had, we were lucky to escape that one,” he explained.
“I think you have to see it for yourself,” he teased, the moment not caught by WRC All Live’s cameras. “[It was] a proper one!”
Gus Greensmith had been running seventh, half-a-minute down on his M-Sport team-mate Adrien Fourmaux, prior to the final stage of Saturday morning’s loop.
But the Briton collected a rear-left puncture on the stage, electing to continue rather than stopping to change it and wearing all the rubber from his Fiesta’s rim.
“No idea why I got it,” Greensmith said. “I just got the tire pressure alarm and yeah, had a puncture. Not sure when.”
The issue dropped Greensmith to ninth behind both 2C Competition Hyundais of Oliver Solberg and Nil Solans. However both are catchable for Greensmith, with Solans just 5.4s ahead.
Fourmaux has been on good form on Saturday morning, coming close to a maiden asphalt stage win in the WRC on the previous test. He was fifth fastest on El Montmell.
“It’s really, really good, I start to understand how it works,” he said.
“It’s a shame to lose the fastest time [on the last one] again but it’s like that. I think I can be happy because these are really top drivers.”
Eric Camilli completes the overall top 10 and leads WRC2 in a Citroën C3 Rally2, heading Nikolay Gryazin – who is only eligible to score team points for Toksport – by 14.8s.
Mads Østberg needs to score at least 18 points to stay in the hunt for the WRC2 title but following a puncture on Friday is fourth; currently only poised to score a maximum of 17 should he win the powerstage on Sunday.
Emil Lindholm leads WRC3 over local driver Pepe López and the title-chasing Kajetan Kajetanowicz, while Junior WRC pre-rally points leader Jon Armstrong has fallen to fourth in that classification after making a mistake on the first stage of the loop and getting stuck for five minutes.
Sami Pajari is now in a favorable position to become the first ever Finn to be Junior WRC Champion as he leads the way.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 12m03.5s
2 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai) +0.3s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +2.3s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +6.3s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) + 6.4s
6 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +7.3s
Leading positions after SS9
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 1h31m22.2s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +9.0s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +32.0s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +32.2s
5 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +53.7s
6 Fourmaux/Coria (M-Sport Ford) +1m26.2s
7 Oliver Solberg/Craig Drew (Hyundai) +2m44.4s
8 Nil Solans/Marco Marti (Hyundai) +3m11.0s
9 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) + 3m16.4s
10 Eric Camilli/Maxime Vilmot (Citroën) +5m51.5s