This stage comprises two former tests linked by a new section in the middle. It starts near the famous Santa Rosa watersplash in front of huge crowds. The first section is technical and narrow and is lined by banks on both sides of the road. After the new part, the route reverts to familiar territory over fast but rough roads, with big jumps.
How the action unfolded:
Punctures for Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Ogier enabled Sebastien Loeb to edge further ahead as the rock-strewn stages brought another turnaround in the top three.
Hirvonen dropped 35 seconds in his Citroen DS3 with a rear right flat, while Ogier lost a little over five seconds after a front left puncture on his Volkswagen Polo R. That meant Ogier relegated Hirvonen to third, the gap between them at 15.2 seconds.
After losing the lead when he slipped off the road this morning, Ogier came out in determined fashion and was three seconds quicker than Loeb at the early splits. However, Loeb profited from his fellow countryman’s woes to win the stage by 3.4sec in his Citroen DS3 to stretch his lead to 29.7sec.
“I pushed really hard,” admitted Loeb, sensing Ogier’s attack. “It’s rough, but you have to go over the rocks and hope that you don’t get what happened to the others.”
This morning’s pass had exposed plenty of large stones from the sandy surface and Ogier hit one of them about 7km from the finish.
His body language suggested he was frustrated to see Loeb pull further ahead. But his words when asked if he could still catch the leader were reminiscent of their battle on the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo.
“That’s not my plan. My plan was to catch Hirvonen. I only care about him,” Ogier told WRC Live, in a reference to Loeb’s limited programme of just four rallies.
Hirvonen’s DS3 completed the stage with much of the rear right bodywork flapping. “I drove on the puncture for 20km and it finally exploded 5km from the end. I went a little bit wide into a corner and hit a rock,” explained the Finn.
Andreas Mikkelsen was third fastest, despite clipping a bridge and convincing himself that he, too, had a puncture. “It was going like a snake afterwards!” joked the Norwegian, whose Polo R displayed no signs of a flat.
However, there was damage and he stopped on the liaison section to the next stage with broken suspension and retired.
Jari-Matti Latvala was fourth fastest in the other Polo R, the Finn having changed the suspension and differential settings in service.
Ford Fiesta RS duo Mads Ostberg and Thierry Neuville rounded off the top six, Neuville having changed his damper settings in a bid to gain more traction in the bumpy sections.