The Frenchman returned to Leon tonight having extended his overnight lead from 33.0sec to 2min 52.4sec. Just three stages covering 80.41km tomorrow stand between him and the win.
His cause was helped when Mads Ostberg retired from second with a broken alternator on his Ford Fiesta RS. Then Mikko Hirvonen, who inherited second in his Citroen DS3, dropped two minutes with a puncture.
Ogier won five of the seven stages and his serene progress was only interrupted by a bizarre incident near the end of the final high-altitude test when he encountered a closed gate across the road.
Co-driver Julien Ingrassia leaped out to open it and the duo dropped 40sec. Organisers are investigating why the gate was shut.
Ogier was so relaxed that he could laugh at the incident at the stage finish. “Maybe somebody didn’t want me to win,” he joked. “There’s still one day to go and in the morning we have the longest stage of the rally so we must keep our concentration. I want to drive at a good rhythm and have fun.”
A leaking pipe in the clutch hindered Ostberg in the opening test. On the following road section he had to turn off his Ford Fiesta RS each time he stopped and restart it in gear. When the alternator failed, his battery quickly ran out of charge and he was stranded.
“It’s the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had in rallying,” he said. “I’ve been disappointed previously but never this bad. It’s very frustrating after fighting for a good result.” He is expected to restart tomorrow under Rally 2 regulations.
With a large time gap to Ogier and no challenge from behind, Hirvonen eased his pace to hold position. However, a puncture dropped him into the clutches of Thierry Neuville and the pair are separated by just 7.5sec.
“I’m lucky to be second,” he admitted. “I drove 23km with a rear left puncture so now we’ll have a fight tomorrow as well. The fight looked to be over when Ostberg went out but the gap is small and the first stage is 50km so anything can happen there. He will try, so I need to push as well.”
Neuville damaged the steering of his Fiesta RS in the opening stage and when it jammed in the next test he spun and lost almost a minute. Fears of overheating later were eased when the Belgian discovered the dashboard warnings were prompted by a disconnected fan.
“I’m disappointed for Mads because he was doing well on only his second time here but sometimes that happens in rallying and for us it was good. We won a place and we’re now on the podium so we should continue like this and try to finish there,” he said.
Dani Sordo is fourth, but the Spaniard remains perplexed by his lack of pace in the Citroen DS3.
Nasser Al-Attiyah and Ken Block round off the top six, the Qatari driver relieved to escape a huge sixth gear moment in his Fiesta RS. Chris Atkinson has his sights set on Block, the Australian only 26.7sec behind.
The top 10 is rounded off by Benito Guerra, Martin Prokop and Evgeny Novikov, the Russian driver back in the points after losing 12 minutes yesterday with ECU problems.
Ford Fiesta RRC driver Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari continues to dominate the WRC 2 support category. The Qatari won six of the seven stages to return to Leon 6min 11.8sec ahead of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo of local hero Nicolas Fuchs.
After battling with brake problems for much of the morning, Ricardo Trivino lies third in another Group N Mitsubishi with Yuriy Protasov completing the runners in fourth.
Armin Kremer retired from third this morning with a broken steering arm on his Subaru Impreza.