Neuville edges Ogier in enthralling head-to-head

Neuville started Saturday afternoon with the rally lead, but two stage wins from Ogier, including the Frenchman’s 700th career fastest time, gave the Toyota driver a 0.8s lead over Neuville after the day’s penultimate stage.

But Hyundai’s Neuville responded brilliantly to stun Ogier in the final test and move back into a 3.3s lead, which he will take into the final day on Sunday.

Neuville also provisionally secured the maximum 18 points on offer for today under a new-for-2024 points structure that rewards the top 10 crews. These will be secured if the Hyundai driver finishes the rally on Sunday, where a maximum of seven points are on offer for the fastest driver through the leg, alongside the addition of five bonus points for the Power Stage winner.

Ogier, who began the day in third, is set to score 15 points, while Friday’s rally leader Evans is poised to bank 13 points in third [+34.9s] following a frustrating day.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak ended a Saturday interrupted by engine issues in fourth [+1m46.9s], ahead of M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux [+2m54.0s]. Andreas Mikkelsen reclaimed sixth [4m21.2s] from Gregoire Munster, who retired on stage 12. His exit also promoted Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta to seventh [+7m34.0s].

The battle for victory went up a notch when the action resumed on Saturday afternoon. Ogier declared that he had to drive perfectly to stay in the fight at midday service, and the Frenchman duly delivered.

Ogier produced a blistering effort in stage 12 (Esparron/Oze -18.79km), the second pass through the test where Neuville starred in the morning. This time the Toyota driver managed to beat a committed rally leader Neuville, who felt he’d driven a good stage, by 5.5s.

Ogier admitted that he took more risk in posting the time that moved the eight-time world champion to within 2.2s of the 2020 Monte winner.

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Evans started the test in second overall but struggled in the stage and ultimately conceded 16.9s, which dropped him to third.

“That’s a big surprise,” said a shocked Evans. “I’m surprised it is so bad, it didn’t feel so great but that’s a bit chronic.”

Identical times were set by Tanak and Katsuta, the latter growing in confidence. But for sixth-placed Munster, the stage ended in heartbreak at the 6.3km mark.

The M-Sport driver ran wide on a patch of gravel at a slow-speed left-hander, which resulted in his Puma becoming beached in the barriers to end his day prematurely.

Ogier continued his inspired charge in stage 13 (Les Nonieres/Chichilianne, 20.04km), which offered contrasting conditions. The first half was dry, before a tunnel separated the dry road from a wet and slippery closing section.

Clearly with a point to prove, Ogier reeled off a 700th career stage win. He eclipsed Neuville by 3.0s, which was enough to move into the lead of the rally for the first time this weekend by 0.8s.

“We need to keep pushing – it’s very close,” said Ogier. “It’s very nice – we love [the fight] and it’s good for the fans too. There is no time to back off now, there’s just time to push.”

Evans was unable to match the pace of Ogier and Neuville for the second consecutive stage. The three-time championship runner-up struggled in the low grip sections and ceded another 7.6s to his team-mate, as he drifted to 21.9s away from the lead.

Neuville summoned the perfect answer to Ogier’s pace by taking out the final stage by 4.1s in stunning fashion to surge back into the lead of the rally, while Evans dropped another 13.8s.

“We did a good stage, it was perfection,” said Neuville. “Everything went well and I really enjoyed the car – it was incredible.”

In WRC2, Nikolay Gryazin grabbed the lead back from Pepe Lopez in the day’s final stage, the pair were split by 0.2s.

The rally will conclude following three stages on Sunday.

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