Rallye Monte-Carlo leader Thierry Neuville widened his advantage over reigning world champion Sébastien Ogier to more than a minute during the opening two speed tests of Saturday’s penultimate leg.
Stage info: SS9/10
SS9: Lardier et Valenca - Oze 1, 31.17km
This is familiar to drivers as it features the opening two-thirds of last year’s monster 51km stage. It climbs initially on patchy ice before crossing the Col d’Espréaux and Col des Verniers, where snow can be expected. From there it descends through the valley to Oze.
It contains a bit of everything – long fast straights, twisty and narrow sections and climbs and descents.
SS10: La Bâtie Montsaleon – Faye 1, 16.78km
This is fast throughout, and the final section is REALLY quick! A new stretch of bumpy road at the start leads onto the final part of the long 2016 stage, crossing Col la Croix and Col de Faye.
The Hyundai i20 Coupe pilot won the opening stage from Lardier et Valenca to Oze by 2.6sec from the Frenchman, before gaining another 13sec in the following test to stretch his lead to 60.7sec.
A long 15km section of snow and ice in the opening stage demanded studded winter tyres, but the second stage was 95 per cent dry, and most drivers opted for a mix of studded rubber and super soft slicks.
“I had a good, clean run in the first stage. It was tricky but I had good information from our gravel crew and was committed and confident. The car is working well, I’ve never had a car like this at the start of the season before,” added the Belgian.
Ogier reported no problems in his Ford Fiesta, but eighth in the second stage was the result of a cautious approach on the short sections of ice.
Team-mate Ott Tänak retained third, although the Estonian reported the same downshifting issues as yesterday in his Fiesta. He was fifth in both tests and was 11.3sec behind Ogier as competitors returned to service in Gap.
Jari-Matti Latvala was fourth, but the Toyota Yaris man was far from happy. He pushed too hard on the dry roads at the start of SS9 and his damaged studs offered less grip when he reached the snow and ice later in the stage.
Dani Sordo regained fifth from Craig Breen but the surprise of both stages was Elfyn Evans. The Welshman was third in the opener, before winning SS10 by 1.0sec from Neuville.
“It was really tricky with frost under the trees and sunshine changing the situation all the time. We had a cross tyre choice, so it was interesting in places!,” said Evans.
Stéphane Lefebvre punctured the front right tyre in his Citroën C3 and then conceded more time with broken power steering, while team-mate Kris Meeke lost almost 25 minutes after stopping with mechanical problems.