Sebastien Ogier moved a step closer to a record-breaking ninth Monte Carlo Rally victory after producing another faultless drive in the French Alps on Saturday. But a charge by his Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate and reigning WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera means it’s not quite a done deal with Sunday’s final leg still ahead.
Having built up a sizeable advantage of more than a half minute on Friday, Ogier’s attentions switched to lead preservation in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 as the FIA World Rally Championship’s Monaco-based season opener headed into the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence for six asphalt stages totaling 69.46 competitive miles.
With Saturday’s running order based on reverse rally classification, the eight-time WRC champ had to contend with the most polluted road conditions as gravel, rocks and mud were swept onto the stages by those running higher up the field.
Ogier, who only drives a part-program for Toyota as he continues to explore a sports car racing career path, took a vigilant approach. He was in no mood for risk taking and desperate not to repeat last year’s disappointment, where a sharp rock caused a late puncture which put the brakes on his victory bid.
But as a result of his caution, the 39-year-old Frenchman saw his buffer more than halved by charging GR Yaris colleague Rovanpera. He heads into Sunday’s final leg 16.0s clear at the top.
Ogier is confident he has enough time in hand but, with four treacherous stages still remaining, anything could happen. Victory here would put him clear at the top of the Monte Carlo Rally roll of honor, beating the eight-win record he currently shares with old foe Sebastien Loeb.
“I think (the lead) should be enough,” said Ogier. “The last stage today was the most dangerous one for punctures, so I took it easy and I am happy that stage is over now.”
WRC champ Rovanpera started strongly and won two of the morning’s three stages to put some distance between himself and Hyundai i20 N Rally1 ace Thierry Neuville.
Neuville responded by claiming two fastest times himself, but a big push from Rovanpera in the darkness of Ubraye–Entrevaux left Belgian Neuville anchored in third, 16.0s adrift of his Finnish rival.
Elfyn Evans made it three Toyotas in the top four with a solid comeback drive following his Friday puncture. The Welshman leapfrogged M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tanak in the day’s second stage and never strayed outside the top-three times for each of the remaining four tests, ending 24.5s off Neuville on the leaderboard.
For M-Sport Ford returnee Tanak there were feelings of both relief and disappointment after a technical fault left his Puma Rally1 with heavier steering than normal.
Although it left him unable to put up a fight against Evans, the flipside of Tanak’s issue was that the power steering did not fail completely — something he would have been dreading as there was no mid-leg service on the schedule.
Toyota rising star Takamoto Katsuta climbed to sixth overall after leapfrogging Hyundai’s Dani Sordo on the first run from Le Fugeret to Thorame-Haute. Sordo, who now holds seventh overall, continued to feel puzzled by the lack of competitiveness in his stage times.
Eighth-placed Esapekka Lappi made overnight setup tweaks and felt much more comfortable with his new i20 N. A rear-right puncture on the day’s fourth stage was a minor source of frustration but, importantly, did not affect his overall place in the standings.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Nikolay Gryazin continued to press ahead — but his hard work very nearly came undone with a big drama on Saturday’s final test.
Another faultless drive allowed the 25-year-old Toksport WRT Skoda Fabia RS driver to stretch his advantage in the class to more than 45 seconds heading into the day’s final test, a night run through Ubraye-Entrevaux. But a front-right puncture around four miles from the end of the stage saw Gryazin’s lead sliced to just 15.2s over Citroen C3 driver Yohan Rossel, setting up a thrilling final day.
“I was trying to avoid all the cuts and the rocks, but we still got it,” explained a frustrated Gryazin.
Sunday’s final leg returns to the Alpes-Maritimes for four stages adding up to 42.18 competitive miles. The familiar Luceram/Lantosque stage opens proceedings and is followed by a re-run of La Bollene-Vesubie/Col de Turini, which crews have already driven in darkness on Thursday evening. Both stages are repeated once again, with the latter forming the rally-closing Wolf Power Stage, where bonus points are available.
WRC Monte Carlo Rally, leading positions after Day Two, SS14
1 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h27m11.5s
2 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +16.0s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +32.0s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +56.5s
5 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m37.3s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m15.7s
7 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +3m08.8s
8 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +3m11.4s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +8m06.1s
10 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +8m21.3s
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