Sébastien Ogier is just four speed tests away from a popular home victory on this weekend’s Rallye Monte-Carlo, but the Frenchman will need to hold his nerve on the final day after Ott Tänak kept him on his toes throughout Saturday with an impressive performance on his Toyota debut.
Ogier and Tänak began leg three of the season curtain-raiser separated by just under 15 seconds in their duel for glory. Although the Frenchman had more than doubled that advantage come day’s end, the figures do not paint the full picture of a see-saw scrap that at one point saw him more than a minute clear.
The M-Sport man produced a virtuoso performance on the opener (SS9: Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps), maximising his favourable road position in treacherously snowy conditions to extend his lead over Tänak to 1min 18.4sec – but then the Estonian fought back. Fastest on both SS10 (Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes – La Bâtie-Neuve) and SS11 (a repeat pass through Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps) – notwithstanding an excursion into a field in the latter – by the time the cars headed back to evening service in Gap, the margin between the pair was down to just 33.5sec.
“Losing six seconds [to Tänak] on SS13 was what we had allowed for – I wanted to have at least 30 seconds in hand tonight, and that’s what we have,” reflected Ogier. “We perhaps didn’t make the perfect tyre choice for today’s final stage – it was very dirty and we were a bit on the limit – but it’s ok.”
Tänak’s Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala briefly flirted with second spot himself – closing to barely 20 seconds shy with a good run through SS9 – before falling away and settling into a solid and lonely third place. The Finn’s cause was aided when Hyundai rival Dani Sordo crashed out of a podium position on Saturday’s first stage.
Latvala overhauled compatriot Esapekka Lappi in another Yaris as he moved up the order, with the younger Finn falling behind Britain’s Kris Meeke when a mistake precipitated a puncture on SS11. Lappi spent the remainder of the day playing catch-up, with his dogged determination paying off as he reclaimed fourth spot from his Citroën rival on the final stage (SS13: Bayons – Bréziers), leaving a scant 1.6sec between the pair heading into Sunday.
Elfyn Evans sits sixth overnight as the Welshman continues to battle back from opening day misfortune in his Ford Fiesta, with Hyundai’s similarly delayed Thierry Neuville recovering to seventh courtesy of a brace of stage wins on SS12 and SS13.
Bryan Bouffier has slipped to eighth in the classification ahead of Citroën’s Craig Breen, who suffered for being the ‘road-sweeper’ through the snow of SS9. WRC 2 pace-setter Jan Kopecky completes the overall top ten.
Tomorrow, crews will tackle two identical loops of two stages totalling 63.72km in the steep Alpes-Maritimes hills, with no service break. La Bollène-Vésubie – Peïra-Cava and La Cabanette – Col de Braus will each be run twice, with the former comprising the legendary Col de Turini and the latter doubling up as the points-paying Power Stage.