Toyota pair split by just 4.5s after leg two of WRC season opener.
Elfyn Evans leads Rallye Monte-Carlo after Friday’s second leg, but the Welshman is under increasing pressure from his Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
Evans had been 21.6sec clear of his GR Yaris Rally1 colleague after Thursday’s night-time loop, but Ogier is now looming large in the Welshman’s rear mirror after a stunning drive over Friday’s French Alps roads near Gap saw him whittle that deficit down to just 4.5sec.
Ogier won two of the morning’s three speed tests and climbed from third to second after Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville spun his i20 N in SS4. The Frenchman had moved to within 10.7sec of Evans by the day’s midpoint, with the bulk of the time being gained over the ice-patched special stage from La Bréole to Selonnet.
The pair were closely matched for much of the repeated afternoon loop, but it was again at La Bréole / Selonnet – held in darkness on its second run – where Ogier shone, outpacing his colleague by 4.1sec to set-up a thrilling showdown going into Saturday’s penultimate leg.
“It was a difficult start to the rally, but we expected that with our start position,” said Ogier, a nine-time winner of this event. “Now I am glad that we managed to be very close – tomorrow will be fun.”
Evans, who was never outside the top three times, admitted that conditions had been difficult to read.
“It never gets easier, this rally,” he explained. “[The last stage was] very difficult in the dark. I had a lot of information, but I couldn’t see a lot of it to be honest – I just had to trust it. It’s very difficult to read the conditions on the road. I’m happy to get through today without any issues.”
Neuville remained very much in the fight at the sharp-end and trailed Ogier by 11.6sec in third. He won three of the day’s six special stages and enjoyed a trouble-free run aside from his early-morning spin.
Ott Tänak was lucky to end the day 57.5sec further back in fourth after ice on a right-hander sent his Hyundai sliding into a ditch during SS3. It took spectators just 40sec to get the Estonian back on the road. Grégoire Munster and Takamoto Katsuta also went off at the same location, with the latter dropping more than five minutes.
Adrien Fourmaux repaid M-Sport Ford’s faith in him by delivering an impressive third-best time in SS5. The 28-year-old is returning to the WRC’s top level having contested WRC2 in 2023, and he completed the top five aboard a Puma.
Andreas Mikkelsen, also returning to the top-flight for the first time since 2019, ended the day over one minute back from Fourmaux in sixth overall. Driving a Hyundai, the Norwegian found it difficult to trust the information in his pace notes with surface conditions changing constantly.
Seventh-placed Munster reached the overnight halt 28.2sec further back in his Puma, while WRC2 contenders Nikolay Gryazin, Pepe López and Yohan Rossel completed the top 10.
Saturday brings another full-on schedule with Esparron / Ozenet launching the day at 08.05. Les Nonières / Chichilianne and Pellafol / Agnières-en-Dévoluy follow before the trio are repeated, bringing the day’s total competitive distance to 120.40km.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris 1h 25m 28.9s
2. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +4.5s
3. T Neuville / Martijn Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +16.1s
4. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N +1m 13.6s
5. A Fourmaux / A Coria FRA Ford Puma +1m 38.0s
6. A Mikkelsen / T Eriksen NOR Hyundai i20 N +2m 58.9s