Sébastien Ogier moved within touching distance of an eighth FIA World Rally Championship after a pulsating battle with team-mate Elfyn Evans at FORUM8 ACI Rally Monza on Saturday.
The lead changed hands five times in six speed tests as Ogier snatched top spot with a charging drive through the closing special stage on Monza’s maze of roads. He leads Evans by just 0.5sec after nearly 215km of flat-out action.
A top-three finish for Ogier would secure the crown in his final rally before retiring from full-time competition. While the Frenchman would like nothing more than to bow out with a 54th rally victory, his eye remains on the title.
“I didn’t expect to regain the lead tonight,” he admitted. “I’m taking a bit less risk and losing a bit of time. We hope there will be emotion, and some very strong ones tomorrow. A win would be the cherry on the cake, but the main target we are chasing is not the rally win.”
Ogier snatched top spot from Evans in the opening stage in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The lead changed twice more in the morning before the action switched to Monza for two afternoon stages and another two turnarounds at the top of the order.
Thierry Neuville restarted with the aim of gate-crashing the fight for the lead. He won the opening San Fermo test in his Hyundai i20 but thumped a barrier in the next stage on cold tyres, ripping the bumper and aero from the front of the car.
He conceded almost 30sec to slip behind team-mate Dani Sordo and battled through the morning’s remaining two tests with an aero imbalance. Sordo had early handling issues, but became happier as the day progressed and ended third, 19.2sec off his colleague.
Oliver Solberg, driving another i20, was fifth, 34.6sec behind Neuville. The young Swede drove his tyres to the limit on the abrasive mountain roads and a similarly aggressive approach at Monza resulted in a few unplanned slides.
Sixth was Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta. The Yaris pilot found grip hard to come by initially this morning and a couple of mistakes on the track this afternoon frustrated him. He ended 17.6sec adrift of Solberg and 38.3sec clear of Teemu Suninen, who got the better of Gus Greensmith.
Sunday brings not only the closing day of the season, but also the final day of the World Rally Car era ahead before the introduction of hybrid-powered Rally1 cars in 2022. All three stages, covering 39.53km, are at Monza, with the finale forming the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
Leading positions after Saturday
1. S Ogier / J Ingrassia FRA Toyota Yaris 2hr 13min 27.2sec
2. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota Yaris +0.5sec
3. D Sordo / C Carrera ESP Hyundai i20 +27.4sec
4. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 +46.6sec
5. O Solberg / E Edmondson SWE Hyundai i20 +1min 21.2sec
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston GBR Toyota Yaris +1min 38.8sec