Sebastien Ogier has grabbed the lead from Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans in the Monte Carlo Rally on the third day of this year’s World Rally Championship opener.
After Friday’s action, Ogier had lost half a minute following a puncture on the penultimate stage of the day, although he immediately reclaimed 16 seconds from Evans before the overnight halt.
Restarting in the dark in order to comply with local COVID-19 legislation, Ogier then resumed his imperious progress on the opening 18.3km La Bréole – Salonnet stage.
The Frenchman crossed the line 17.8s faster than the Welshman and 20s faster than anyone else in the rally.
It was a masterclass and even the usually business-like Frenchman was wide-eyed with the adrenaline coursing long after he cleared the stage end.
With Ogier leading Evans and the third Yaris WRC of Kalle Rovanpera, Toyota’s grasp on the event was further strengthened by a disastrous stage for its nearest challenger, the Hyundai of 2019 WRC drivers’ champion Ott Tanak.
The Estonian had been hanging on grimly through Friday’s stages but his Saturday run began with a spin that was followed by a puncture which sent him hurtling down the order.
Dawn had broken before the start of the second stage of the day, the 20.48 km Saint-Clément – Freissinières test, and Thierry Neuville brought some cheer to his beleaguered Hyundai squad by firing in his first stage win of the event.
Last year’s Monte winner had struggled throughout the opening days as he and newly-installed co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe sought to find a working relationship.
On stage 10, however, Neuville hit form by setting a time 42.2s faster than Ogier’s and closing up on the third placed Toyota of Kalle Rovanpera in the overall order.
Any good cheer that Neuville’s stage win brought to Hyundai was soon tempered by the sight of Tanak stopping on the stage with another blown tyre. Having already used the only spare on board his i20 WRC, the Estonian’s event was over.
After a short service break the crews returned to La Bréole – Salonnet for the final stage of the day, where the Toyotas once again asserted their authority. This time Evans was the winner by a scant 1.3s from Ogier – but it was enough to cheer the Welshman.
“I needed that really,” Evans said. “It’s been a bit of a frustrating day, really, just not really been on the money… we’ll keep the pressure on!”
Ogier was unperturbed and holds a 13.0s advantage as the teams prepare for four stages on the final day.
“The condition have changed a lot since the first pass and also since the gravel crew have passed so it was a little of what we see and try to trust it,” he said. “But it was a clean drive for me.”
Neuville’s scintillating form did not continue into the final stage of the day and this bought Rovanpera some breathing space at the overnight halt, with a 7s gap opening between them.
“I had a problem with my earplugs so Jonne [co-driver Jonne Halttunen], had to scream all the time so I could hear the notes,” Rovanpera explained.
“I didn’t hear the notes so well so maybe at the beginning I was not so comfortable but then when I get used to the result it was okay.”
The battle for the final podium position is now more than a minute clear of Dani Sordo in fifth place at the wheel of the third works Hyundai.
The Spaniard had struggled on Friday but his pace improved dramatically on Saturday morning before suffering again on the day’s final stage.
“I was just very slow,” he said after setting only the 15th fastest time through the final stage.
“We need to bring the two cars to the end of the rally so the only way is we go a little bit slower than before but it was very bad.”
In WRC2, the day delivered another big chunk of time to veteran Andreas Mikkelsen, who holds seventh place overall and a 2m14s advantage over the M-Sport Ford of Adrien Fourmaux, with Oliver Solberg third for Hyundai.
“We drive again comfortably, very tricky conditions, but my information is really spot on. I have the best gravel crew in the whole world.” Mikkelsen enthused.
In WRC3, Yohan Rossel enjoyed another solid day, maintaining his lead over Yoann Bonato and Nicolas Ciamin.
Leading Rally Monte Carlo positions after Stage 11
|1||RC1||Sebastien Ogier, J.Ingrassia||Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT||2h16m31.9s|
|2||RC1||Elfyn Evans, S.Martin||Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT||13.0s|
|3||RC1||Kalle Rovanpera, J.Halttunen||56.8s|
|4||RC1||Thierry Neuville, M.Wydaeghe||Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT||1m03.8s|
|5||RC1||Dani Sordo, C.del Barrio||Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT||2m11.3s|
|6||RC1||Takamoto Katsuta, D.Barritt||Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT||4m43.1s|
|7||WRC2||Andreas Mikkelsen, O.Floene||Toksport WRT||5m22.7s|
|8||RC1||Gus Greensmith, E.Edmondson||M-Sport Ford WRT||6m14.6s|
|9||WRC2||Adrien Fourmaux, R.Jamoul||M-Sport Ford WRT||7m36.5s|
|10||WRC2||Eric Camilli, F-X.Buresi||Sports & You||7m54.1s|
|11||WRC2||Oliver Solberg, A.Johnston||Hyundai Motorsport N||8m47.3s|
|12||WRC2||Nikolay Gryazin, K.Aleksandrov||Movisport SRL||10m47.3s|
|13||RC1||Pierre-Louis Loubet, V.Landais||Hyundai 2C Competition||14m42.8s|