Neuville set a blistering pace across the morning’s two stages, winning them both to extend his lead over Toyota’s Ogier to 13.5 seconds, with only the Power Stage remaining on Sunday afternoon.
Neuville’s impressive pace has also put him at the top of the Sunday standings, where seven points are on offer for the fastest driver as per the new scoring structure.
Toyota’s Elfyn Evans remains in third overall 42s adrift, but is second in the Sunday combined times meaning he is set for six extra points. Hyundai’s Ott Tanak ended the loop fourth overall (+1m54.7s) and third for the day in front of Ogier.
M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux held onto fifth (+3m27.6s) ahead of Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen (+5m29s) and Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta (+8m25.7s).
Gregoire Munster returned to the action following his crash on Saturday and is in contention to pick up two Sunday points.
After claiming the maximum 18 points under the new structure on Saturday night, Neuville made his tactics clear on Sunday morning with another 12 points on the table.
The Belgian picked up from where he left off on Saturday and engaged full attack mode. The Hyundai driver blitzed stage 15, the third pass through La Bréole /Selonnet, which featured black ice patches.
Neuville emerged from the early morning darkness with a time 4.7s faster than rival Ogier to extend his overall lead to 8s over the Frenchman.
“The beginning was a big push, toward the end I was a bit more careful but I guess everybody has to slow down on that section – we did well, I’m happy with my time,” said Neuville.
Ogier felt he was too cautious but was surprised by the speed of Neuville.
Photo by: Toyota Racing
Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
“It was interesting conditions, with some ice in places,” said Ogier. “I was a bit too cautious in some places probably. That’s a big push [from Thierry].”
Tanak set a strong pace to net the third fastest time, 1.8s faster than Evans, who was sitting third overall. Evans had opted for the prime tyre strategy by running all softs, but those tyres were not optimal on the icy patches.
“I was really too careful at the end with the ice – it’s really difficult to judge but all OK,” said Evans.
The M-Sport duo of Fourmaux and Munster were fifth and sixth. The top 10 was completed by WRC2 runners Yohan Rossel and Pepe Lopez, who posted identical times, Katsuta and Nikolay Gryazin. Mikkelsen could only post the 11th fastest time.
The penultimate stage of the rally stage 16 (Digne-les-Bains/Chaudon-Norante) produced a similar outcome in the Neuville versus Ogier head-to-head.
Neuville came out on top, winning the stage by 0.2s from Evans while Tanak was a further 2.5s in arrears. Ogier could only manage a time that was 5.5s slower than Neuville.
“It was nice – it’s hard to judge the speed because it was actually much more slippery than we expected in the beginning, and it was getting really dirty,” said Neuville.
“So far it feels good but there is one more stage to go and we need to keep concentrated.”
Ogier effectively conceded victory to the Hyundai driver.
“It was over after the first one anyway,” said Ogier. “It’s OK, we have done a decent weekend but [Thierry] was just flying so well done to him.
“I tried and it was a good stage but I’m not one to take stupid risks.”
When pressed on his decision not to take risks with a 10th Monte win on the line, he added: “I have nine and nobody have that so it’s not that bad.”
In WRC2, the intense battle for victory showed no signs of stopping as Lopez took a 0.9s lead over Rossel into the final stage of the rally.