Sebastien Ogier sits on the cusp of a record-breaking ninth Monte Carlo Rally victory after outwitting his World Rally Championship arch-adversary, Sebastien Loeb, in the snow and ice of the French Alps on Saturday.
Ogier headed to the day’s final run over the Col de Fontbelle with five seconds in hand over his fellow Frenchman after reclaiming the rally lead on the third of Saturday’s five special stages.
With three miles of snowy and slushy roads at the top of the pass, Loeb laid out his cards by bravely fitting his M-Sport Ford Puma with Pirelli’s soft-compound asphalt rubber. He hoped to benefit on the dry opening section, before minimizing the time loss when he reached the snow.
Ogier had already decided to mix two soft tires and two snow tires on his Toyota GR Yaris, but on seeing Loeb’s selection, he made a last-minute switch to the same combination. He then outpaced Loeb by 16.1s to reach the final overnight halt in Monaco with a 21.1s overall lead.
“I was planning to go with the snow tires because that was the safest option, but I saw that Seb [Loeb] was going for slicks, so I swapped at the last minute before the start,” Ogier explained. “It was tricky to drive in places.”
Loeb could not reproduce the pace that carried him to four fastest times yesterday.
“Now the gap is a bit far,” he admitted. “We tried, but Ogier saw it and changed at the last minute. It was really tricky with the slicks and very easy to make a mistake, but we’re here.”
After a day of breathless drama, Craig Breen was third in another Puma. The Irishman was 64.9s adrift of Loeb, but a clean run enabled him to climb from sixth.
“Obviously we just need to try and maintain it,” said Breen. “It’s a strange third place — the pace hasn’t been anything amazing.”
After a dismal opening two days, Kalle Rovanpera found a more balanced setup for his GR Yaris and soared from ninth to fourth overall by day’s end. He sits 37.8s behind Breen after winning Saturday’s final two stages.
Gus Greensmith was fifth despite a puncture and an engine problem which cost time in the stages, as well as a three-minute penalty as he replaced his Puma’s spark plugs. Having slipped to ninth overall at one point, he recovered well as his rivals fell by the wayside.
Thierry Neuville fought against a broken front damper in his Hyundai i20 N, which punched through the car’s hood at one point. He dropped several minutes and ended almost eight minutes off the lead in sixth.
Elfyn Evans was third until he slid off the road, leaving his GR Yaris perched on the edge of a steep drop. He conceded 20 minutes in being recovered.
Ott Tanak retired his i20 N in the first climb up the Col de Fontbelle after nosing into a bank and damaging his car’s radiator, while teammate Oliver Solberg dropped 35 minutes after locking his brakes and sliding down a bank, the Norwegian distracted by exhaust fumes entering his cockpit.
Toyota development driver Takamoto Katsuta’s strong fifth place disappeared when he found a ditch on the col and dropped off the leaderboard.
Sunday’s finale comprises four stages — two tests in the Alpes-Maritimes region driven twice — without service, before the finish in Monaco’s Casino Square. The last stage forms the Wolf Power Stage, with bonus points available for the fastest drivers. The four tests add up to 41.8 miles — plenty enough distance for more twists in an already fascinating WRC season opener.
WRC Monte Carlo Rally, leading positions after Day Two, SS13
1 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h19m43.1s
2 Sebastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +21.1s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m26.0s
4 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m03.8s
5 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +6m33.8s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20N Rally 1) +7m44.1s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia Evo; WRC2 leader) +9m37.2s
8 Erik Cais/Petr Tesinsky (M-Sport Ford Fiesta) +9m59.6s
9 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Hyundai i20N) +10m44.1s
10 Yohan Rossel/Benjamin Boulloud (Citroen C3) +11m14.2s
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