Named after a small town halfway through, El Chocolate is a new stage that features a 5km section of the former Ortega stage at the end. It’s a mid-sized road with a lot of loose gravel and a varied character that includes climbs and descents, narrow, technical sections and flat-out blasts. The road surface varies too, with five distinctly different types of gravel.
How the action unfolded:
Sebastien Ogier delivered a real statement of intent in the longest and most difficult stage of the leg by blitzing his rivals to reclaim the lead.
The Volkswagen Polo R pilot was quickest by 9.0sec from Mikko Hirvonen and headed back to Leon with an 11.8sec advantage at the top of the leaderboard. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Frenchman.
“I had no splits,” he said. “I had times for the cars ahead but not those behind me so I didn’t know what they were doing. It was very slippery with a lot of loose gravel and you have to be clean here. It’s long, and by the finish I just wanted to complete it.”
Hirvonen arrived at the finish with a cracked windscreen on his Citroen DS3 after clipping a branch. The Finn was surprised at how slippery the roads were, commenting: “It felt as if the tyres were going off.”
Thierry Neuville continued his consistent morning with third fastest, but the Belgian was another to have no splits coming into his Fiesta RS.
“I never know where I am. I took it carefully, maybe a bit too carefully. It’s three rallies that I have had this and it’s not so nice,” he said.
Fourth was Mads Ostberg and while that was enough to place him second overall, his frustration at losing the rally lead was clear.
“The car feels very, very strange. Maybe the tyres are overheating. I was sure I had a puncture so I slowed down at the end. I struggled with grip at the beginning. The car was too stiff for this stage and there was no traction,” he said.
Evgeny Novikov was fifth, his earlier problems now seemingly solved, and he also had a cracked windscreen on his Fiesta RS.
Rounding off the top six was Dani Sordo, but the Spaniard was another to cut a frustrated figure. “I drove really, really badly. It’s very slippery, narrow and difficult to stay in the lines and brake well,” he said.
Martin Prokop spun into a ditch in a narrow section and then lost the brakes on his Fiesta RS 10km from the finish. “It took a long time to get back on the road after the spin because it was a narrow place. When the brakes went I had to drive slowly because the road was narrow and dangerous,” he said.