Thierry Neuville is close to breaking Toyota’s long-running grip on the top two places of Rally Spain by closing to within a second of Kalle Rovanperä, as Dani Sordo put everything on the line to take a first stage win of the event.
Sordo had lost time on Friday with a puncture and occupies a somewhat lonely fifth, having briefly had to fend off Elfyn Evans earlier on Saturday.
But seemingly fed up of his middling pace, Sordo put the hammer down on El Montmell, determined to show he still had stage-winning speed.
His push was exemplified by the penultimate corner, where he hung the rear of his i20 N Rally1 out wide and went almost entirely off the road.
“I don’t care [about] the time. I pushed like hell,” said a defiant Sordo.
“I hope we have a good time but honestly I just drive, I enjoy, it was more clean. I promised to my friends I need to do a best time today so I did try at least.”
Neuville had been frustrated at not being able to make his Hyundai any faster no matter what settings he changed on his i20 but still closed the gap to second place to only 0.4s, as Rovanperä had a disastrous run.
“That was a proper s*** one,” Rovanperä said calmly.
“Big mess on the startline. Had some issues in the beginning of the stage. Yeah, did many things wrong before the stage, so the stage was not easy,” before refusing to elaborate on exactly what had gone wrong.
That hiccup for Rovanperä handed Ogier a 21.1s lead, putting him much closer to a fourth Rally Spain victory.
Even though there’s only a short superspecial around the city of Salou still to come on Saturday, Ogier refused to relax.
“It’s not over, there’s still this Mickey Mouse in the city where things can happen,” said Ogier. “I know it well; we lost 10s there last year by stalling, so still need to finish that one.”
Ott Tänak had a bit of a scare but remains a steady fourth, though he arrived at the stopline with his front-left brakes on fire.
He appeared to have had a trip through some shrubbery as his front grille was stuffed with long grass – potentially a main contribution to why his brakes had lit up.
Evans remains firmly mired in them midfield but at least ensured sixth place would be more secure, taking another 3.3s out of Craig Breen to turn his advantage over the lead M-Sport car into double digits.
It’s not so much a fight for position as it is a painful wait to see which driver suffers the least, driving recalcitrant cars they can’t get to do their bidding.
“Pretty much going round in circles, to be honest,” was Evans’ assessment of the situation. And Breen offered little optimism either: “Primarily I just worked the front so much, so hard, that I just get chronic understeer and I can’t manage it at the end of the stage. It’s quite difficult to drive it at the moment.”
Eighth place looks to be a wrap for Takamoto Katsuta, taking another 5.5s out of Adrien Fourmaux to build his gap over ninth to 18.4s.
That was despite struggling with overheating tires in the latter phase of the El Montmell test.
“End of the stage, we had big overheating tyres and big understeer, not so enjoyable at the end,” said Katsuta.
A lack of turn-in meant some yanking on the handbrake was necessary – but Katsuta seemed unfazed: “Not often to use the handbrake on tarmac but that was also a nice experience!”
Pierre-Louis Loubet’s decision to take an extra spare hard tire in the hope he’d have extra grip didn’t really pay off, the weight penalty proving to be more than the fresh grip was worth.
In the initial splits on El Montmell Loubet was well up on team-mate Fourmaux but by the finish had only gained 1.6s, leaving him miles off the back of the Rally1 field in 10th.