Mikko Hirvonen in action - Credit: Citroen Racing

Mikko Hirvonen in action - Credit: Citroen Racing

While Sebastien Loeb remained out front, it was a subdued day for the Frenchman, with Citroen team-mate Mikko Hirvonen taking two stage victories to rapidly close in on the ailing Petter Solberg, who let second place slip of out of his grasp and leave it for the taking by Dani Sordo.

As always tyre choice was going to be a decisive factor, and the Citroens had planned ahead for the icy stage to follow. Loeb had dominated the previous day, but after he chose a mixture of slicks and studs, it was the ever determined Solberg that came first on the opening stage, taking 13 seconds out of Sordo in the wet and slippery conditions of St Jean en Roynans to Font d'Urle. The tyre choice of the works Citroens allowed the customer Fords to capitalise, with Francois Delecour setting an impressive second quickest time, 3.3 seconds behind the flying Solberg. He was followed by another two M-Sport Fiestas, Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tanak.

Despite the lack of pace in the opening test, Sordo, like Solberg, had also gone for a tyre choice that was more suitable for the opening stage, with no studs to rely on in the upcoming icy stage. Despite this, it was Solberg who suffered the most, dropping over a minute to the Spaniard and falling dangerously close to the chasing Hirvonen, who had chosen studded tyres all round and won the second stage of the day.

“I had slicks on the rear and no studs on the front and there was so big aquaplaning from the start,” said Solberg. “I almost went off, it was unbelievable. There was so much water and black ice. It was much worse than I expected.”

“It was really, really tricky,” added Sordo. “We didn't take tyres with studs and lost a lot in the last part where there was snow and where it was really bad.”

Another driver who guessed right in the tyre lottery was Pierre Campana in the second Mini Cooper. He set the third fastest stage time, helping him build a more comfortable gap to the chasing Ford of Ott Tanak.

The only stage of the afternoon was more of the same from Stage 12. After a couple of troubled days, Hirvonen had finally found harmony with his DS3 and was flying. Solberg meanwhile was having yet more problems, his aggressive corner-cutting causing a puncture and breaking a wheel rim. He limped his Fiesta RS to the stage finish, but the damage was already done – Hirvonen had closed to within 20.8 seconds of the Norwegian.

Loeb backed up his Finnish team-mate in second place in Stage 13, ensuring he retained a lead of over two minutes to Sordo heading into the penultimate day of the rally.

Evgeny Novikov has so far put past demons behind him, driving at a fast pace but avoiding errors that have blighted past seasons for the Russian driver at senior level. He set the third fastest time in the final stage of the day, but has fallen further behind Hirvonen and looks unlikely to improve on his current 5th position. However, he holds a lead of over two minutes to closest challenger Delecour, who holds a fine sixth place on his first WRC event in a decade.

Per-Gunnar Andersson still holds 9th place overall and the lead of the SWRC class, however Armindo Araujo is recovering from earlier mistakes and problems with his Mini Cooper WRC, and with only 1 minute 20 seconds in hand over the Portuguese driver, 9th may change to 10th tomorrow. He still holds a comfortable lead in his class, but Andersson wasn’t without problems in his quest for 10 points. His Proton Satria Neo’s windscreen de-mister failed, causing vision problems through Stage 12.

With only a single 5km stage on Sunday, tomorrow will likely decide the fate of the rally. The drivers will face 85km of competitive stages, with the enigmatic Col du Turini featuring twice, with the re-run taking place at night. It has taken many famous scalps in the past, but with the field whittled down to such low numbers already, can the Turini create one last surprise this weekend?

Overall standings after Day 3

1. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) 3hrs 31mins 25.2secs
2. Dani Sordo (Mini) +02:12.4
3. Petter Solberg (Ford) +03:22.2
4. Mikko Hirvonen (Citroen) +03:43.0
5. Evgeny Novikov (Ford) +04:28.2
6. Francois Delecour (Ford) +06:39.1
7. Pierre Campana (Mini) +07:45.1
8. Ott Tanak (Ford) +08:44.8
9. Per-Gunnar Andersson (Proton) +13:20.8
10. Armindo Araujo (Mini) +10:31.4