Pushing the intensity of their WRC title shootout to a whole new level, Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans swapped the lead five times during day two of Rally Monza.
Ogier finished Saturday’s six special stages with a scant 0.5s lead over Toyota teammate Evans, and with only three stages to complete on Sunday, the seven-time and reigning champ looks well placed to add an eighth.
The 37-year-old Frenchman headed to the FIA World Rally Championship’s Italian finale with a 17-point lead and needing only third place, regardless of Evans’ result. Although Ogier doesn’t need to finish ahead of the Welshman to guarantee he ends his full-time WRC career as a champion, his pace and commitment over the opening two days bely his talk of taking it easy on Sunday.
“I didn’t expect to end the day with the lead, because I’m not taking any chances,” said Ogier, who’ll switch to a limited program with Toyota Gazoo Racing in 2022. “Now I just need to cruise and not make any mistakes tomorrow. The target we’re chasing is not the rally win.”
Saturday’s 67.56 competitive miles began with four special stages in the Bergamesque Alps, north of Milan, and finished with two runs of an 8.94-mile test within the confines of the Monza circuit. Overnight leader Evans knew he’d need to keep pushing in his Yaris WRC, while hoping for the long-shot scenario of second-placed Ogier falling off the pace and into the clutches of the trio of Hyundais that completed the top five.
The reality proved somewhat different… On the day’s first stage, Evans struggled with grip and saw his 1.4s overnight lead turn into a 1.5s deficit to a fired-up Ogier.
The second stage saw Evans briefly back in front by 2.3s, but a fastest time for Ogier on the day’s third stage prompted the day’s third lead change – as Ogier’s co-driver Julien Ingrassia noted, “You’re not watching the WRC, you’re watching a tennis match!”
Ogier extended his lead to a relatively comfortable 5.2s on the final mountain stage, but his teammate was back on form in the first run of a Monza stage that felt more like something out of a Gymkhana video, using sections of the F1 track, the historic banking, service roads and even the parking lots. Evans posted fastest time and, more significantly, edged Ogier by 5.5s to hold a 0.3s lead prior to the leg-ending repeat run.
Still, we weren’t done with the lead changes just yet. Ogier made it five for the day with a time just 0.8s quicker than Evans, but enough to give him that 0.5s margin heading into Sunday’s trio of stages at Monza. Frustrating stuff for Evans, but he remains focused on his mission.
“I came here to win the rally,” he said, “and that’s still the plan. It was a better afternoon for me than morning, so with three more Monza stages tomorrow, we’ll keep pushing for the win. Whatever else happens, that’s out of my control.”
One thing Evans won’t be relying on is a late charge from the Hyundais. After finishing day one in third, but more than 20s down on the lead battle, Thierry Neuville had vowed to take the fight to them on day two. Fastest time for the Belgian’s i20 WRC Coupe on Saturday’s opener gave his plan some credence, but a spin and front-end aero damage on the second stage saw him drop to fourth behind teammate Dani Sordo.
Sordo was quickest on the day’s final Monza stage, but he’s now 27.4s off rally leader Ogier. Neuville sits a further 19.2s behind Sordo in fourth, yet doesn’t discount a podium shot on the short, sharp Sunday leg.
“The feeling and the times were good today,” said Neuville. “OK, the spin on cold tires on the second stage wasn’t great, but now the fight is to try and get third back tomorrow.”
With Monza the final rally for the current breed of World Rally Cars, replaced by all-new, hybrid Rally1 machinery in 2022, Neuville’s Hyundai boss Andrea Adamo has already noted that he doesn’t really need the cars return to the team’s German base in one piece, so watch for some Neuville fireworks…
Oliver Solberg continues to hold fifth in the satellite 2C Competition Hyundai, ahead of Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta in sixth. Behind them, Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen has passed M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith for seventh, but the Fiesta WRC driver is vowing to claw back the 7.7s deficit tomorrow — “Three stages, three attacks, and we’ll get that spot back.”
Still marooned in ninth and cruising as instructed, Kalle Rovanpera continues to play back-up for Toyota’s near-certain WRC manufacturers’ title. Will the 21-year-old Finn be let off the chain for tomorrow’s final three stages at Monza? Don’t bet on it as long as his factory teammates Ogier and Evans continue their duel for the drivers’ crown…
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Jari Huttunen’s M-Sport Ford leads the registered runners, with newly-crowned champ Andreas Mikkelsen 1m01.6s behind in his Skoda as he continues to fight back from a day-one puncture.
WRC Rally Monza, leading positions after Day Two, SS13
1 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h13m27.2s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC) +0.5s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +27.4s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +46.6s
5 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m21.2s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m38.8s
7 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m17.1s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m24.8s
9 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Haltunnen (Toyota Yaris WRC) +3m39.1s
10 Andrea Crugnola/Pietro Elia Ometto (Hyundai i20 N Rally 2) +8m07.1s
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