Andreas Mikkelsen and Thierry Neuville head into the final day of the Monte Carlo Rally split by just 12secs, their rally-long fight gaining new importance as they climbed to second and third.
On a day of disparate strategies and risky gambles in the differing conditions, both Mikkelsen and Neuville would adopt alternative tyre choices over the course of the day in an effort to spur their chances of making progress.
Mikkelsen set the tone by running with studded tyres through the morning loop, a move that lost him a minute on the mostly dry SS9, only for him to win the icy SS10 by a mammoth 44secs.
Inspiring Neuville and several others to adopt a similar strategy on the second loop, his gamble would see him not only top SS12 but again on SS13, each one by a sizeable margin, to close the gap to Mikkelsen ahead to just 12 seconds.
Furthermore, with Kris Meeke and Jari-Matti Latvala forced to retire up ahead, their battle is now for second and third positions, with just three stages of the rally remaining.
“All in all, it was a good day for us,” said Volkswagen's Mikkelsen. “This morning, we were the only ones to opt for a completely different tyre strategy and take four spiked winter tyres with us, as well as two supersoft slicks. As a result, we lost a lot of time on the first of the two stages.
“However, we gained some of that back on the following stage. That is typical 'Monte': one stage is dry, the next has ice and snow on it. I was very cautious in the afternoon, especially on the 'Sisteron' stage, as I did not want to take any risks.
“I was possibly a little too cautious, as we lost time again there. We have another exciting battle for second place with Thierry Neuville ahead of us tomorrow. We are looking forward to that.”
Indeed, the day's big winner was arguably Neuville, his two stage wins – the first for the new Hyundai i20 on its WRC debut – allowing him to make crucial in-roads as a first podium finish since the Rally d'Italia looks in reach.
“We were able to show a bit more of our potential in this afternoon's loop, thanks to improved settings on the New Generation i20 WRC and a great tyre choice which gave me the confidence to push where it counted. We started the day without taking any risks, building on yesterday, but I could already feel the benefits of the new set-up.
“In the afternoon, we lost time on the long SS11 (Lardier et Valenca - Faye 51.55km) but we hoped the tyre choice would give us an advantage on the final stages and it definitely did! To take the first stage wins with the new car was a special moment and I could really enjoy myself.
“The car worked perfectly. Things are coming together step by step so tomorrow our focus will be on securing our third place and aiming to take a podium finish for the whole team.”