The unflappable Frenchman has led since the rally’s second stage and rounded off Friday’s competition with a fastest time through SS13.
Just three stages comprised today's third leg. The opening St Jean en Royans test in the Vercors region east of Valence preceded the start of the long journey south to Monaco. En route drivers tackled two more stages, including the famous Sisteron, near Digne-les-Bains, bringing today's total to 92.00km.
Last run in 2002, Sisteron is one of the Monte’s most formidable challenges, with a route that includes a bit of everything, from steep climbs and high speed descents to wide open sprints and twisty, technical sections. The route was dry at the beginning and end, but there were five kilometres of rutted ice from the 21km point as the road climbed to the 1308 metre summit of the Col de Fontbelle.
Loeb was first to arrive at the stage end, his Citroen DS3 fitted, like most of the front-runners, with a combination of winter and asphalt tyres. “It was the right decision for sure, but the mix is certainly not the most exciting to drive,” he said. “But we have to do it because I think it’s the best option. Overall I’m very happy with the job we have done today.”
The Volkswagen team’s hopes of a podium on its WRC debut ride with Sebastien Ogier. Despite a stall on an uphill hairpin, the Frenchman kept a cool head to get his Polo R to the stage end in the third fastest time. “It was okay, I was very careful especially on the ice. I took absolutely no risks,” he said.
After another impressively trouble-free outing in his Ford Fiesta RS, Evgeny Novikov is third, 1m32.5s behind Ogier. “It’s been a fine day,” the Russian acknowledged. “On this stage I had two studded and two winter tyres. So I made up some time in the ice but we lost a bit at the beginning and the end where it was dry. I’m happy though.”
Citroen DS3 driver Dani Sordo is fourth after a spin earlier in the day, but only 1.7sec adrift of Novikov, setting the scene for a terrific battle for the final podium place tomorrow.
After a frustrating few days, during which he struggled to get a comfortable feeling in his Volkswagen Polo R, Jari-Matti Latvala made a breakthrough on SS13, arriving at the finish in the second fastest time. “Let’s have more like this - a few more Sisterons please!” he grinned. “Now I’m starting to get my confidence. Much better!” The Finn’s performance moved him ahead of Mikko Hirvonen into fifth, 43.3sec behind Sordo.
Hirvonen slipped to sixth, 14.2sec back, and still in the doldrums after another unhappy stage in his Citroen DS3. “Not looking good,” was the Finn’s blunt assessment. “I was really cautious which meant I overheated the brakes because I was on them too much. I lost a lot time at the end. It was a really bad stage.”
Fiesta RS driver Juho Hanninen lies seventh, 56.4sec behind Hirvonen, with Mads Ostberg in an identical car eighth, 1m02.7s further back. Bryan Bouffier is ninth with Martin Prokop completing the top ten.
WRC 2 category leader Sepp Wiegand had a fright when a battery problem threatened to bring his Skoda Fabia S2000 to a halt this afternoon.
The young German stopped on the road section to SS12 when the battery stopped charging. He was able to make repairs and his pace through the stages was unabated, allowing him to head down to Monaco with a lead of 4min 48.3sec.
“I’m just happy to be here. We had a problem with the cable from the battery and there was no connection, so it wasn’t charging. We fixed it with tape and it was fine in the stages. No can fix it at service and I’ll try to drive safely to the end,” said Wiegand, who was fastest on all three tests today and lies 11th overall.
Armin Kremer remains second in a Subaru Impreza, the German admitting he is erring on the side of caution. Yuriy Protasov’s Impreza is third, 2min 46.1sec further adrift.
In fourth is the Skoda Fabia S2000 of Rashid al Ketbi while Ricardo Trivinio and Lorenzo Bertelli complete the runners.
Sebastien Chardonnet, the sole survivor in WRC 3, enjoyed a trouble-free day in his two-wheel drive Citroen DS3. The Frenchman emerged from the final Sisteron stage in 17th overall and such was his pace that he was faster than all the WRC 2 drivers in SS12.
“At the beginning of the stage we were thinking about our tyre choice and we decided finally to put some studs on the front wheels. It was a good choice because it was just crazy. The ice was very, very slippery. But it’s quite easy to control the car so it was a lot of fun,” he explained.