While Sebastien Loeb stayed in the background, accumulating Top 3 stage times to keep his lead as big as ever, it was Dani Sordo and Petter Solberg who were the center of attention yet again in the battle for second, with Mikko Hirvonen trying to barge his way into the podium places just behind them.
Hirvonen picked up from where he finished the previous day – winning the stage and edging closer towards Solberg ahead. “I was driving quite safely and still did that time,” he said. “I'm not sure it will be enough but I'm getting more familiar with the car.”
Enough it certainly was not – a mere 1.7 seconds was all Hirvonen had been able to gain on the Norwegian. Instead, they had both caught up with Sordo, who was too busy complaining about his ill-handing car – “slow and heavy” as he put it – to notice that Sebastien Loeb was struggling to stay focused on his two minute lead.
“I didn't take any risks, I'm just trying to find the right rhythm and to be concentrated,” said Loeb. “But it's really difficult to find the right rhythm when all you have in your mind is not to make no mistakes.”
Sordo’s woes continued in the following stage – dropping 12.5 seconds to the chasing Solberg, albeit with 40 seconds in hand still. All he could do at the end of the opening loop was shrug his shoulders in confusion as to how he had haemorrhaged so much time in just two stages. At the other end of the scale, Solberg was happy with the fastest time in Stage 15, gaining 8.4 seconds on Hirvonen behind.
“I'm just trying to keep my third place for Ford, that's the main thing for me,” Solberg said. “We have to be realistic. I lost a couple of seconds with a mistake close to the finish. The car is working very well I must say, I feel very comfortable.”
His sentiments made sense in the context of Hirvonen’s anxious performance over the same stretch of tarmac. “I was not so confident on the damp and took it a bit steady,” he explained. “That's not so good for the podium but I didn't want to take any chances. It's going to be tough for the podium now.”
Evgeny Novikov was having similar problems to Sordo due to a bad tyre choice, but didn’t need to worry about losing the 5th place he had held since yesterday, as Francois Delecour had to fight against his own car’s broken power steering throughout the opening two stages. Both M-Sport drivers held position in 5th and 6th despite their relative problems.
The trend set just before afternoon service continued in the rerun over the Col du Turini, with Solberg once again going fastest and gaining significant amounts of time on Sordo. Hirvonen meanwhile turned his slim chance of a podium into no chance of a podium by spinning early in the stage and dropping over 13 seconds to the stage winner.
“It was very good, no major problems at all,” said Solberg. “I took it a little careful on the downhill with no risk. It was a fantastic stage and it was a dream feeling.”
Loeb had similar praise for the Turini re-run, doing a solid job of retaining his lead by finishing just over two seconds off the pace of Solberg. “It was a very good stage, very good condition and nearly dry,” he commented. “It was a real pleasure to drive and there was a great atmosphere with a lot of spectators. I really enjoyed it.”
Solberg had become a man on a mission, and carved another 12.5 seconds out of Sordo on the final stage of the day. Not even the Monte maestro Loeb could keep pace with him, finishing 7.7 seconds down yet still second quickest through Lantosque to Luceram.
Sordo’s advantage may have shrunk to a slender 18.3 seconds, but with only the short 5km powerstage left of the rally tomorrow morning, he was confident he had done enough to secure second place. “Petter needs to push a little harder because I think we have enough of a gap now,” he said.
Regardless of his final position, Solberg was delighted with his performance and his new Fiesta RS, after being on the few drivers to actually take time out of Loeb over the course of a whole day.
“This has been my best day in a car since 2004. I never dreamed of having a car as good as this, and to be able to attack on the stages like I have today is unbelievable,” he said. “I'm really happy to have set three fastest stage times today. If someone had offered me that this morning, I'd have gladly accepted it. When I drive with the feeling I have now it is just unbelievable,” he added.
Podium battles aside, there was good news further down the field, with Delecour showing he isn’t over the hill at 49 years old by coming third in both evening stages. He now looks destined to take 8 points on his one-off WRC comeback, just behind Novikov, 28 years his junior but surprisingly level headed this week. Pierre Campana had a mostly quiet penultimate day, aside from some intercom problems causing a brief issue near the end of Stage 14. And at the foot of the points scoring places there is still a close battle to be fought – Martin Prokop is less than three seconds ahead of 10th placed Armindo Araujo.
The Col du Turini was not going to come and go without claiming at least one victim however. Per-Gunnar Andersson had looked set for a straightforward victory in the SWRC class with several minutes in hand over his sole surviving rival Craig Breen. His victory hopes literally went up in smoke on the Turini re-run, a minor fire grinding his Proton to a halt just short of the famous peak, forcing him to retire on the spot and hand the only remaining points to Breen.
“[Andersson and co-driver Axelsson] reported smelling fuel in the car and saw a fire as they were going up the hill,” explained Proton team principal Chris Mellors. “They put the fire out, but have been forced to retire. Obviously we don't know the precise nature of the fire until we get the car back here.”
He continued, “As you can expect, the team are completely gutted. After Giandomenico [Basso] went out on the first stage, PG has driven the perfect rally and done precisely what we asked of him. He extended his lead to an incredible seven minutes, but it's all over now. Unbelievable. We were so close to a top 10 and completely dominant SWRC win on our first time out with the car at this level. Now, we go away and come back stronger on the next one.”
With just tomorrow’s powerstage to go, everyone with the exception of Prokop looks safe. But being the Monte, it wouldn’t be surprising to see one last twist in the tale. Delecour winning the powerstage is the surprise I will be looking for, but it seems like yet another event where Loeb can do no wrong.
Classification after Day 4
1. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) 4hrs 29mins 12.1secs
2. Dani Sordo (Mini) +02:41.6
3. Petter Solberg (Ford) +03:00.7
4. Mikko Hirvonen (Citroen) +04:05.6
5. Evgeny Novikov (Ford) +06:00.8
6. Francois Delecour (Ford) +06:55.7
7. Pierre Campana (Mini) +08:21.3
8. Ott Tanak (Ford) +10:27.2
9. Martin Prokop (Ford) +16:06.3
10. Armindo Araujo (Mini) +16:09.2