Loeb won two stages, opening his account on the first test this afternoon and ending the leg by winning the final test by just 0.5sec from Volkswagen Motorsport’s Ogier.
Competitors tackled two identical loops of three stages in the northern Ardeche and Haute Loire regions north-west of Valence. The 132.50km of asphalt was covered by deep snow and hard-packed ice, although conditions became rutted during the second pass. Temperatures were bitter and a biting wind made the -11°C recorded this morning feel like -30°C.
“We kept the lead that we had this morning and that was the main goal for the day. The penultimate stage in St Bonnet was full of snow and offered really nice conditions. But this last test was a bit rough, with a lot of cuts and just one line through the ice,” said an unflustered Loeb.
Loeb may be leading, but 29-year-old Ogier is wasting little time on comparing his times to those of his former team-mate. His sights are clearly focused on the championship rather than this rally, and he has given short shrift to the persistent questions about Loeb’s pace.
“I don’t care about him. You need to get that into your minds!” said the Polo R pilot. “There are still two days to go but we’re happy with the car. We’ve had no problems at all so we’ll cross our fingers and try to preserve second.”
Dani Sordo and Evgeny Novikov are engrossed in an exciting battle for third. Both displaced Mikko Hirvonen from a podium place, while Novikov also saw off Jari-Matti Latvala as he climbed from sixth to fourth, 15.2sec behind Sordo.
Sordo and Novikov were fourth and fifth through the final test, although the Spaniard was not so happy as his Citroen DS3 arrived at the finish. “It’s a good battle but I didn’t have a good feeling in this stage and the time wasn’t so good. The stages continue to be difficult tomorrow, but I’m really looking forward to Sisteron (SS13),” he explained.
Novikov took full advantage of a brand new set of studded tyres to win the final two stages of the morning in his Fiesta RS for the Qatar M-Sport squad. The Russian promised to continue to attack tomorrow.
“I’m so happy and I’m looking forward to the last two days. I will continue to fight for a good place,” he said.
Fifth and sixth were Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, both somewhat subdued at the wheel of a Citroen DS3 and Volkswagen Polo R respectively. The pair are separated by 20.5sec.
“It has been a really difficult day,” admitted Hirvonen. “It’s not so often that I feel as bad after a day, but I’ve been really struggling and I’m not happy.”
Latvala was not quite as crestfallen, but far from content. “I’ve had fewer problems today but I’m not happy with my times. It’s not been a positive day in that sense. I have an idea of what to change and I hope it works,” he said.
Juho Hanninen climbed to seventh, the Finn delighted at claiming his maiden WRC win on his debut in a Fiesta RS. “I’ve learned a lot about this car. It’s not easy because I need to accept that I don’t know the car so well and there’s a lot of potential I can’t use when the grip is changing. When the grip is the same, it’s OK. When I get used to the car it will be good.”
In eighth is former Monte winner Bryan Bouffier, whose eyes were opened in the final stage. “It was a Tarmac road?” asked the Citroen DS3 pilot. “I’m not so sure! The guys in front are crazy, cutting like hell. I want to finish and I’m trying to do well. Up to now it’s positive.”
Mads Ostberg was another member of the subdued club. Ninth fastest in the final stage and ninth overall were not what the Norwegian had in mind on his Monte-Carlo debut. “I’m not happy. I’m losing so much time and I don’t know why,” was all the normally talkative Ostberg said from inside his Fiesta RS.
Rounding off the top 10 is a lonely Martin Prokop. The Czech driver is more than eight minutes behind Ostberg and almost five minutes ahead of his nearest rival.
“I’m really happy to finish because I had some big, big moments and I’m pleased to stay on the road,” admitted Prokop.
The only other WRC car still running is the MINI John Cooper Works of Michal Kosciuszko in 14th, the Pole’s incident-packed rally continuing with a spin in the final test tonight, after which he was helped back onto the road by spectators.
“It was difficult to find my speed in the fast sections. I don’t trust my ability in a WRC car in the really quick parts at the moment,” he admitted.
German Sepp Wiegand continues to lead the WRC 2 category in his Skoda Fabia S2000. His advantage has climbed to 3min 55.9sec from fellow countryman Armin Kremer in a Group N Subaru Impreza. Wiegand won all six stages today and has now won all but two of the 10 tests.
“It was a really good day with strong times and no problems. It’s good to learn and gain experience of snow for next month’s Rally Sweden. I’m learning a lot and driving at a good speed but not pushing,” he explained.
Veteran Kremer, who won one stage yesterday, knows the time gaps mean nothing on such a difficult rally and with two long days remaining. “Yeah I’m really happy, the car is nice and I think it’s been really fantastic. But this is only day two and we know the rally is very long,” he said.
Yuriy Protasov is third in another Impreza, 2min 39.6sec behind Kremer, and the Ukraine driver’s only problem was a broken handbrake in the first pass through St Bonnet (SS9)
Rashid Al Ketbi lies fourth in a Skoda Fabia S2000, 15min 55.2sec behind Protasov. Ricardo Trivino’s Mitsubishi Evo X and Lorenzo Bertelli’s Impreza complete the runners.
Sebastien Chardonnet moved into the lead of the WRC 3 category today while overnight leader Renaud Poutot retired in the penultimate stage this afternoon.
Poutot’s troubled day began when his Citroen DS3 went off the road into a tree in SS6, handing the advantage to the similar car of Chardonnet.
However, the gap between the two was less than a minute when Poutot’s rally came to a premature end when he slid into deep snow and was unable to regain the road.
Chardonnet is the only survivor in the category and just needs to reach Saturday night’s finish in Monaco to take maximum points.
Chardonnet lost time on SS5 when he briefly slid off the road, and suffered other minor issues. “When it got dark I turned on my lights and the light pod wasn’t properly adjusted, so it was hard to find the apexes. On the last stage I did not understand my notes at the beginning and I lost time,” he said.