Volkswagen's Sebastien Ogier has increased his lead on Rally de Espana to 36.6 seconds following Friday afternoon's repeat loop.
Ogier finished the first three stages this morning with an 8.4 second lead over Thierry Neuville and he initially stretched that margin to 9.9 seconds after winning SS5, the 7 km Gandesa 2 test.
However, with the Belgian bolting on two new tyres for SS6 and putting in a 'big push' to top the times in Pesells 2, Ogier saw his margin cut to 4.6 seconds. Neuville then made a mistake though in Terra Alta 2 and lost over 2 minutes.
“I'm really, really happy with the day,” said Ogier, who suffered a small spin after winning SS7. “We pushed hard all day and it paid off.”
Speaking back in service, the Frenchman added: “That was the ideal start to the Rally Spain. We couldn't have done anything any better today. Big thanks to the team, the Polo R WRC also ran perfectly.
“From the first to the last kilometre Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and I gave it our all and had a flawless day. The asphalt section of the Terra Alta stage went particularly well – that's where we got the biggest lead over our rivals
“However, we still have a fair few kilometres to go, the tyres in particular might play an important role on Saturday.”
Neuville was disappointed by what happened in the final test of the day, and he now slips from P2 to P9.
“There are a lot of positive elements to take from today's stages,” he insisted. “We have shown ourselves to be competitive in these difficult and variable conditions. We have also won a stage and been in a close battle for the lead.
“The visibility has been our biggest challenger this morning and it has been really difficult. In the final stage, I got distracted by the dust in the car and I ran wide, hitting something with the rear right of the car and had to stop to change tyre. That obviously cost us a lot of time so we've dropped down the classification.
“We have given everything today, pushed hard and I think we've shown whaat we're capable of. There will be more to come tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, despite struggling and not being happy with his Polo R WRC, Jari-Matti Latvala now lies second, albeit more than half a minute off Ogier and with it all to do if he is to keep his slim hopes of taking the 2014 WRC Drivers' title alive.
“Sometimes you don't have the speed and I didn't have it today,” Latvala admitted. “Nothing wrong with the car and Seb is driving superbly well.
“He set a fantastic time in SS7, I have no idea how he did it, our tyres are so worn - there was nothing I could do.”
“It's going to be very difficult to keep the world championship open now, but we're not going to slow down and we'll keep at it until the end. I hope that things will be better on asphalt as of tomorrow,” he added.
Behind, Mads Ostberg is third in his Citroen, and despite losing time in Neuville's dust in SS7, lies just 0.6 seconds off Latvala.
“Overall, we can feel happy with our performance today," Ostberg noted. "We just lost a lot of time in the dust. But it was important to prove that we were capable of being competitive. Our goal was to finish the first leg on gravel in the top 3 and we've done that. We have made a lot of progress recently on tarmac. I hope we can prove that tomorrow.”
Overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen is also right in the fight for P2, just 0.1 seconds further adrift in P4.
“Particularly early on this morning the conditions were anything but ideal,” Mikkelsen stated. “Hardly any wind, but loads of dust – at times it was like driving into a wall of dust. We could see so little that in some places we didn't know if we were driving in the middle, on the right, or on the left of the road. It would have been very easy to make a mistake there. But we did the best we could. We can be happy with that. The asphalt section starts tomorrow and the Rally Spain is far from over.”
M-Sport's Mikko Hirvonen completes the top five, 4.1 seconds off Mikkelsen and 15.6 seconds up on team-mate Robert Kubica. Kubica suffered a spin SS7 and also reported problems with the up-shift and a misfire in SS6.
“I think today has been pretty good,” said Hirvonen. “We're not so far behind second place and there are many drivers that are really close so I think we can have a really good fight tomorrow.
“One of the hardest things in this rally is switching from one surface to the other overnight. I'm going to have to be awake in the morning to be able to change the rhythm and be competitive on Tarmac. That switch has to happen straight away. Of course the Volkswagen's are really strong on Tarmac, but anything can happen so let's see what we can do.”
“I think that the driving has been good today,” Kubica added, “but we 'finished' the tyres on the Tarmac section [of SS7] and I had a spin around five kilometres from the end. There was a narrow section and we got some oversteer. Unfortunately I had my right hand on the handbrake as there was a left-hand hairpin immediately afterwards and I didn't have any chance to recover the car. Apart from that, I think the pace has been very good.
“This will be my first time having to change so quickly from gravel to Tarmac so I don't expect it to be so easy. We have a short warm-up but then we are straight into a demanding 50 kilometre stage so we will have to be quite clever with the tyres, with the car, with everything. I think it will be an interesting day.”
Further back, local star Dani Sordo ends the day in seventh as the lead Hyundai, with Martin Prokop eighth in his privately-run Fiesta.
“It is fantastic to be taking part in this rally in front of so many supporters,” said Sordo. “The opening stage in Barcelona yesterday was very special. Today has been a long day and we've had to work hard.
“It wasn't so easy in this morning's loop. I didn't have enough traction and there was a lot of dust. The car seemed to lack grip and stability but the guys made some changes at lunchtime service and we had a better feeling in the afternoon. We have pushed hard this afternoon despite the conditions not being easy but I think we are heading in the right direction for tomorrow.”
After Neuville in ninth, Nasser Al-Attiyah is on course for the final WRC point and also the WRC2 win.
Ken Block is just outside the top ten in P11 on his first outing in the WRC since Rally Mexico last season, while Yuriy Protasov, Khalid Al Qassimi, Hayden Paddon and Julien Maurin hold positions 12 through to 15.
Paddon had been third after winning SS3, but picked up two puncture in the next stage and lost over 5 minutes.
“It's great to be back with the team for this rally,” Paddon noted. “It hasn't been a bad day overall. We had to contend with a lot of dust today, which made life tricky, but we've set a solid pace all day.
“This morning went well and winning our first stage was nice. We weren't expecting to do that but it's nice to tick it off the list. We had a bit of a moment in the final morning stage which meant we had to change two tyres. That obviously cost us time but we were still able to keep going.
“The afternoon loop was not entirely straightforward and we lost some seconds on the final stage but we've made it to the end of the day, which is our priority and we'll continue to learn in tomorrow's stages.”
There were a number of retirements, most noticeably British duo Kris Meeke and Elfyn Evans. Meeke went out after suffering a double puncture in SS3 this morning, while M-Sport man Evans went off the road in SS6 and damaged the radiator on his Fiesta RS WRC. Both will re-start tomorrow under Rally 2.
Rally de Espana now continues on Saturday with six more stages on the bill and a competitive distance of 159.16 km.
SS8, the short 3.96 km Tivissa 1 test, is due to start tomorrow at 09.08 hours local time [08.08 hours UK time].
RallyRACC-Rally de Espana: Overall standings after Stage 7 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1hr 29m 04.0s M
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 36.6s M
3. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 37.2s M
4. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 37.3s M
5. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 41.4s M
6. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 57.0s M
7. Dani Sordo Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +01m 24.9s M
8. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 28.2s M
9. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +02m 29.5s M
10. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta RRC +04m 50.4s WRC2
11. Ken Block M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +04m 58.6s
12. Yuriy Protasov M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05m 41.9s
13. Khalid Al Qassimi Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +06m 13.9s
14. Hayden Paddon Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +06m 41.1s M
15. Julien Maurin Ford Fiesta R5 +06m 50.8s WRC2
16. Xavi Pons Ford Fiesta R5 +06m 57.6s
17. Robert Barrable Ford Fiesta R5 +09m 17.9s WRC2
WRC2 standings after Stage 7 (Top 3):
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta RRC 1hr 33m 54.4s WRC2
2. Julien Maurin Ford Fiesta R5 +02m 00.4s WRC2
3. Robert Barrable Ford Fiesta R5 +04m 27.5s WRC2
SS3/SS4. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Double puncture M
SS6. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Radiator damage M
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial