The Belgian, driving one of two Hyundai’s carrying a special tribute livery to the late Craig Breen, ended the morning loop at the asphalt rally with a 16.1s lead over Toyota’s Elfyn Evans.
M-Sport’s Ott Tanak managed to reach the service park in third, 22.1 seconds adrift despite struggling with his Ford Puma, while the sister Hyundai of Esapekka Lappi was fourth, 34.9s in arrears. Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet completed the top six.
After suffering a puncture on stage 2, Ogier won three of the four stages but ended the loop seventh overall, 1m27.1s behind.
Rovanpera found himself outside of the points after his delay, which was compounded by struggles coping with the dirty road conditions.
The rally began under clear skies, with Ogier making the most of the cleanest of the road conditions, starting first in the order.
The eight-time world champion and championship leader delivered a stunning time despite the low grip caused by mud that had been brought onto the surface from rain in the lead-up to the event.
Ogier was 2.6s faster than Neuville, second on the road, although the Belgian was struggling with the handling of his i20 N, admitting at stage end that he “was fighting the car” and had a “big job” to do to reach the finish.
The road conditions became increasingly worse after every pass with the next fastest being Tanak, who was 10.5s slower, although some of the time loss was down to a stall at a tight hairpin left.
Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
“I was losing the boost and then I stalled,” said Tanak. “After that I really struggled with many things. We got some steering issue already on the road section.”
Rovanpera was 0.8s slower than the Estonian as he struggled to extract speed from his GR Yaris.
The Finn’s rally hopes would take a more decisive blow on the next stage as he and Ogier suffered punctures, which appeared to be caused by the same pothole 12km into the 25km test.
Ogier lost the rally lead as he dropped 1m32s in the test, but incredibly was able to change his punctured tyre in little over a minute.
“I avoided the cuts as much as I could but it was just the compression that made the puncture. What can I do?,” said Ogier.
Rovanpera lost 2m17s in the test which dropped him out of the top 10.
There was also a slight drama for Neuville, who ended up winning the stage to inherit the rally lead. Neuville misjudged a chicane and clipped a hay bale which caused damage to the front of his tricolour i20N.
“We will keep going but if it’s going to be tricky like this and hard to drive the car like this all weekend, it won’t be easy,” said Neuville, who ended the stage 4.2s faster than second fastest Elfyn Evans, the Welshman recorded only one shakedown run on Thursday due to a turbo issue.
Ogier bounced back to win stage 3 as he pipped Neuville by 0.8s, with Evans lucky to be third fastest after suffering from a slow puncture towards the end of the test. Tanak kept himself in the mix as he battled his Puma to clock a time, 0.5s slower than Evans.
Rovanpera, however, continued to struggle to adjust to the road conditions and dropped another 8.1s.
“I am struggling with the car in the cuts and I think that’s where I am losing most of the time,” he said.
Ogier once again proved he is the man to beat on the asphalt stage by claiming his third stage win from four in the final test of the loop.
The part-time Toyota driver and 2021 Croatia winner was 1.3s faster than Tanak, while leader Neuville dropped 2.1s.
In WRC2, Yohan Rossel led the class by 29.7s from Nikolay Gryazin ahead of a second pass through the stages for the crews this afternoon.