Nine kilometres shorter than in 2012, this remains the longest test of the rally. It combines many kinds of roads, wide and narrow, with different surfaces, sometimes in the forest, sometimes on open ground. The route features a new section from the Col des Raids to the village of Laitre that includes part of a hillclimb track. A hectic mix of technical and high speed sections, Loeb rates it one of his favourites.
How the action unfolded:
Tyres were the subject of much debate before crews left the Strasbourg service park earlier and the major talking point as they completed the final stage of the loop.
Rain an hour before the start meant conditions were 70 per cent damp when the action got underway. All the Volkswagen and Citroen drivers had hard compound, dry weather Michelin rubber bolted on which was far from ideal for the early starters.
But as the roads dried, hard tyres became less of a disadvantage and Sebastien Loeb, seventh in the start order, mastered the conditions best of all to claim a clean sweep of stage wins this morning and move into the lead.
He was fastest by nine-tenths of a second in his Citroen DS3 from a tying Jari-Matti Latvala and Thierry Neuville. He heads the Finn’s Volkswagen Polo R by 3.7sec as crews returned to Strasbourg for service and more tyre discussions.
“It was damp in places, tricky and difficult, so I tried to keep the temperature in my tyres and be careful in muddy places,” said the experienced Frenchman.
Having tested in the wet, Latvala flourished when it came to putting what he had learned into practice. “I tested in the damp and had a lot of confidence. I was the only one from our team to test in these conditions,” he revealed.
Latvala dueled with Neuville, whose Fiesta RS was fitted with two soft and two hard tyres. “Thierry was six seconds ahead at the beginning and we were up and down with every split. When it was dry I was catching him, and when it was wet he was catching me,” said Latvala.
Neuville climbed to third overall, just 4.7sec behind Loeb, but regretted not attacking more. “I had a good tyre choice but didn’t push too much. At the end I should have pushed more in the dry sections,” he admitted.
Dani Sordo was fourth, 6.4sec behind Loeb and the Spanish DS3 pilot slipped from first to fourth in the standings, although he trails Loeb by only 6.2sec. “The time wasn’t good. It was difficult to keep the car on the road,” he said.
Ogier, first in the start order, suffered most on hard rubber. He dropped more than 20sec to Loeb and is now fifth. “I didn’t want to push when I do not feel it,” he said.
Mikko Hirvonen lost 30sec with a spin in his DS3. “I had to reverse. I should have been softer in the set-up because it felt like no grip at all,” said the dejected Finn.
After just four stages Robert Kubica has a lead of more than three minutes. The Citroen DS3 RRC driver has won all the stages and romped ahead on SS3 when closest challengers Elfyn Evans and Robert Barrable hit trouble.
Barrable was first to go, the Irishman retiring his Fiesta R5 in a ditch after clipping a kerb and breaking its steering. Evans, meanwhile, had to stop to change a puncture. Rashid Al Ketbi is second in a Fiesta RRC with Evans third, 3m13.7sec off the lead.
Quentin Gilbert leads the two-wheel drive WRC 3 category. The Frenchman, third in the title standings, overturned championship leader Sebastien Chardonnet’s early lead with a win on SS3, then took another on SS4 to stretch his advantage to 12.7sec. Keith Cronin, the only other driver in contention for the title, is third, 1m 05.9s behind Gilbert. All three are driving Citroen DS3 R3T cars.