Sébastien Ogier enhanced his Rallye Monte-Carlo lead on Saturday morning as his huge battle with Thierry Neuville continued in the slippery mountains near Gap.
Stage info: SS9/10
SS9: Agnières-en-Dévoluy - Corps 1, 29.82km
Set in the heart of the Dévoluy mountains north of Gap, this test is pacy and mostly downhill on narrow roads that are far from easy. The end of the stage towards Corps, via Pellafol, offers breathtaking views of the Sautet dam as it winds around the lake.
SS10: St Leger les Mélèzes - La-Bâtie Neuve 1, 16.87km
After racing through Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes, including a spectacular ‘donut’ at the roundabout entering the village, there is a steep but pacy climb to Col de Moissière (1574m) which negotiates several hairpins exiting the Ancelle ski resort. It descends on a narrow and bumpy road which twists and turns through Sapet forest. The final section is wide with a series of long open hairpins to the finish.
Ogier, who headed the Belgian by 2.0sec overnight, stretched the gap to 5.6sec through the opening Agnières-en-Dévoluy - Corps test. The longest stage of the rally was especially tricky with several sections of frozen ice and snow reducing speeds to a crawl.
Neuville clawed back three-tenths in the following stage from St Leger les Mélèzes to La-Bâtie Neuve to leave the gap at 5.3sec as competitors returned for service.
“It has been a tricky morning, especially the first stage. I’m still happy with the cautious approach. All is still to play for with Thierry and me, but so far, so good,” said Ogier, who is hunting his sixth consecutive Monte-Carlo victory.
Michelin’s studded tyres were the option for all in the opening test, but while Ogier chose two super soft tyres on his Citroën C3 for the next one, Neuville regretted his decision to fit soft rubber onto his Hyundai i20.
“Maybe not the best tyre choice. I was on two soft when I should have been on super soft. It was more slippery than expected,” he admitted.
Andreas Mikkelsen’s podium hopes were shattered when the third-placed Norwegian swiped a wall on the outside of the final corner in Agnières-en-Dévoluy - Corps and ripped the left rear wheel from his i20. He retired at the finish.
His demise allowed Jari-Matti Latvala into third, although his Toyota Yaris was a distant 1min 40.2sec adrift of Neuville. The Finn shed time in a cautious opening test but a pig push in the next netted second fastest time.
He had 4.7sec in hand over Sébastien Loeb, who stalled his i20 at the start of St Leger les Mélèzes - La-Bâtie Neuve. Ott Tänak won both tests and the Estonian climbed to fifth in his Yaris, more than three minutes clear of Kris Meeke.
Elfyn Evans dropped a minute in the opening test with a delaminated rear tyre on his Ford Fiesta. Worse was to come when he ran wide in a fast left corner early in the next stage and crashed down a steep bank.
Esapekka Lappi restarted after yesterday’s retirement but his day proved short-lived as the Finn parked his C3 midway through the opener with a suspected engine problem. Rallye Monte-Carlo rules mean none of today’s retirees can restart tomorrow’s final leg.
Pontus Tidemand’s day also started badly when the Swede dropped two minutes after stopping to change a rear puncture in the opening stage.