Neuville edges clear of Evans, Ogier in pursuit

Neuville and Evans started the day tied for the lead after ending Friday on identical times, and the fiercely competitive battle continued across the morning’s four stages.

But it was championship points leader Neuville who had the measure of the Welshman to move into a 4.7s lead as the crews headed for service.

Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier ensured the battle for victory remained between three drivers as the eight-time world champion held third 11.3 adrift of Neuville. Hyundai’s Ott Tanak maintained fourth [+52.2s] ahead of M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux [+1m06.4s]. Takamoto Katsuta [+1m56.5s], Andreas Mikkelsen [+3m14.0s] and Gregoire Munster [+3m58.0s] rounded out the top eight.      

The expected rain showers stayed away from the stages but there were spots of moisture in the air as the crews tackled stage nine [Smerovisce – Grdanjci — 15.72km].

With the road order reversed, the leaders faced the dirtiest road conditions but it seemingly didn’t affect joint rally leaders Neuville and Evans significantly.

While the pair started the day deadlocked, it was Neuville who edged clear into an 0.8s outright lead.

Despite facing the worst of the road conditions, Neuville delivered an inspired run to post a time 0.5s adrift of M-Sport’s Fourmaux, who claimed his first stage win of the event to date.

Adrien Fourmaux, Alexandre Coria, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Adrien Fourmaux, Alexandre Coria, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Evans admitted he was “a little bit steady” during his pass that was 1.3s slower than Fourmaux. It proved to be a contested stage with Fourmaux, Neuville, Ogier, Tanak, Evans and the improving Mikkelsen covered by 4.2s.

Conditions remained dry by the time the crews reached stage 10, the longest of the loop.

Once again Neuville and Evans couldn’t be split as the duo posted identical times through the 20.77km Stojdraga — Gornja Vas test as Neuville held onto to his 0.8s rally lead.

The stage was won by Ogier, who stepped up his charge to reel in Neuville and Evans. The Toyota driver took 0.3s out of the pair to cut the deficit to 6.8s to remain firmly in the victory hunt.

Katsuta produced his best drive of the event to date to end the stage 0.4s but remained in a distant sixth overall.

There was however a small drama for Tanak who drifted wide at a left hander and clipped his right rear on a kerb. It appeared the incident didn’t cost the Hyundai driver too much time despite ending the stage with the wheel slightly bent. The Estonian was however quicker than Fourmaux to extend the gap in the fight for fourth to 11.6s.    

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Neuville grabbed the headlines in stage 11 by chalking up his fifth stage win of the event after edging rally rival Evans by 0.9s. Evans admitted it wasn’t an easy task managing his tyre choice of three softs, two wets and one hard given the absence of the forecast rain.

“0.9s is a lot, I’m really happy. I don’t think I could go any faster in there,” said Neuville, who moved into a 1.7s overall lead.

Third-placed Ogier dropped 1.6s to Neuville in the stage that included what he described as a “very close call” over a jump early in the test, that resulted in some damage to the front of the GR Yaris.

Tanak was only a tenth slower than Ogier as the Hyundai driver showed much stronger pace compared to Friday. 

However, Neuville saved his best display until the final stage of the loop outlining the work he had achieved in preserving his rubber.

The Belgian produced a committed effort which was rewarded with a time 2.9s faster than Ogier and 3.0s quicker than Tanak and Evans. Ogier managed to log his time despite being forced to run a wet tyre on the rear of his car to reduce the puncture risk on one worn tyre in his package.

“Quite a decent stage, the onboard must be really cool. We had a better tyre management of the loop and kept good profiles of the tyres,” said Neuville.

Evans added: “It was really slippery and I wasn’t so happy with my run to be honest.”

The battle for fourth took another swing towards Tanak as Fourmaux reported a misfire from his Ford Puma’s engine during the stage.

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In WRC2, Nikolay Gryazin continued to lead the class form Citroen team-mate Yohan Rossel by a margin of 59.9s.  

The crews will repeat the stages this afternoon to conclude Saturday’s leg.

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