Ogier increases the pressure on leader Evans

Overnight leader Evans started the day with a 21.6s gap over nine-time Monte Carlo winner Ogier but that reduced to 4.5s at the end of stage eight.

Nine-time Monte Carlo winner Ogier won three of the day’s six stages, held on tricky dry asphalt roads featuring treacherous icy patches.

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville matched Ogier in the stage win department as the Belgian enjoyed a strong day, minus a high-speed spin on stage four, to sit third, 16.1s adrift.

Returning Hyundai driver Ott Tanak continued to grow in confidence behind the wheel of the i20 N but ended the day, 1m13.6s behind. The Estonian lost 41.9s to an icy patch that briefly sent him into a ditch.

The top six was completed by M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux (+1m38.0s) and Hyundai’s new recruit Andreas Mikkelsen, who continued to adjust to the i20 N on his Rally1 debut.

M-Sport’s Gregoire Munster held onto seventh while the only other Rally1 driver in the field Takamoto Katsuta continued his recovery from losing five minutes to a spin on the same icy patch that caught out Tanak this morning.

Conditions had improved from the morning pass of the Saint-Leger-les-Melezes/La Batie-Neuve test that caught out Neuville, Tanak, Katsuta and Munster.

While the ice patches were reduced there was plenty of water on the road to test the drivers.

Although unsure how hard to push, it was Neuville who topped the times in stage six to edge closer to the leading Toyota duo of Evans and Ogier.

Neuville was 1.6s faster than Ogier, who in turn took a second out of team-mate Evans, which brought the gap to the lead down to 9.7s.

“It was a good stage for us. I think the battle is really starting now that we have more equal conditions,” said Ogier.

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Katsuta enjoyed a clean run through the test, but the Japanese opted for a cautious approach following his error this morning.

Mikkelsen showed signs that he was beginning to get to grips with his new Hyundai after posting the sixth fastest time ahead of Fourmaux, who elected to be careful as the road surface became increasingly dirty.

The battle at the front continued to simmer in stage seven. Neuville resumed the positive momentum from the previous test to chalk up another stage win. The Hyundai driver mastered the dirty road conditions to close to within 17.3s of the overall lead with an effort that was 3.5s quicker than Ogier.  

Ogier declared his pass as “nothing special” but noted the increasing amount of gravel being dragged onto the road surface. 

His view on the conditions was echoed by Evans, who ceded another 1.1s to his team-mate, reducing his overall advantage to 8.6s.

“I was probably not quite smooth or brave enough through the narrow dirty places,” said Evans.

Tanak emerged as the best of the rest ahead of Katsuta, Fourmaux, the improving Mikkelsen and Munster.

The final stage of the day witnessed Ogier step up his pursuit of the lead as the Toyota driver took another 4.1s out of Evans to win stage eight, held in the dark. This came after Evans produced a committed run.

Neuville also managed to pip Evans across a muddy test to ensure a three-way fight for the lead.   

In WRC2, Nikolay Gryazin held a 1.3s lead over Pepe Lopez after the pair swapped positions across the afternoon.

Six more stages await the crews on Saturday before a trio of stages on Sunday.

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