Elfyn Evans nosed ahead of Sébastien Ogier to lead Rallye Monte-Carlo on Saturday night but another fastest stage time from Thierry Neuville keeps him firmly in the fight.
Ogier led Evans on Saturday morning but lost that lead on the first run of La Bréole / Selonnet after a sensational time from his Toyota team-mate.
But Ogier responded on St-Léger-Les-Mèlézes / La Bâtie-Neuve 2 to draw dead level with just Saturday’s fourth and final stage to go.
Then the six-time world champion was too cautious on the icy parts of the stage and surrendered 4.9 seconds to Evans who himself suffered an off-road moment into a ditch.
“It’s so difficult to judge how much we go [on the throttle].” Evans said.
“I just touched the throttle slightly and off she went into the ditch. I was lucky there was nothing hard in there but you need that [luck] sometimes.
“Big day to go [tomorrow].”
Ogier was forthright in his assessment of why his team-mate had outpaced him: “I was obviously quite too cautious. No real mistake.”
For Neuville, Saturday was a strong day. Despite falling over 15s away from the two Toyotas on SS10, the Hyundai driver won the other three stages to close to within 1.5s of Ogier in third overall.
Incredibly, his lead deficit of 6.4s is exactly the same gap as it was on Friday night.
“I tried, to be honest, I tried hard,” Neuville said. “I don’t think I can do really better.
“I was very happy today with the job of my gravel crew, we have improved quite a lot from yesterday so it makes me more confident.”
On an event he has won seven times before, Sébastien Loeb looked a shadow of his former domineering self as he struggled for speed and confidence on Saturday.
His day was capped off by a spin on the final La Bréole / Selonnet that dropped him firmly into the clutches of Esapekka Lappi in fifth.
Lappi claimed he is not interested in battling Loeb though despite coming alive on Saturday afternoon. He pulled 10s out of Loeb on SS12 and 6.3s from Kalle Rovanperä behind, bringing him to within 14.1s of Loeb’s fourth place.
“I’ve been just trying to improve, I’m not really concentrating on Seb and Kalle,” Lappi revealed.
“It’ll be the same tomorrow. If we finish fifth it’ll be my best result in Monte so that’s good to be honest.”
Rovanperä put in a consistent performance on his second full day in a Toyota Yaris WRC in the championship.
The teenager lost ground to Lappi but has avoided making mistakes when others have. He lost 5.6s to Lappi on SS12 to head into Sunday 48.9s back in sixth.
Takamoto Katsuta lost seventh place to WRC3 leader Eric Camilli on Saturday’s opening stages when he dropped three minutes due to a brush with the French countryside.
But the Japanese driver used the extra power of his Yaris WRC to overhaul Camilli’s Citroen C3 R5 on the day’s final La Bréole / Selonnet test.
Mads Ostberg held the lead of WRC2 all day; his challenge made easier by a spin from Ole Christian Veiby on the final stage.
Ostberg also jumped Nicolas Ciamin to take ninth overall ahead of the second-placed WRC3 driver.
Teemu Suninen’s rise up the leaderboard continued following his transmission-related retirement on Thursday. The M-Sport driver is now just 13s from getting into the top 10.
Team-mate Gus Greensmith returned on Saturday after taking an early bath on Friday but had to make up a 10 minute deficit on the final stage to contest Sunday’s leg. Only the top 60 can go onto the Sunday stages in the mountains above Monaco due to space constraints in the harbour where the rally is based overnight.
Greensmith suffered a puncture towards the end of the test which all but guarantees he will take no further part in the event.
Leading positions after Saturday
1 Evans (Toyota)
2 Ogier (Toyota) +4.9s
3 Neuville (Hyundai) +6.4s
4 Loeb (Hyundai) +2m24.3s
5 Lappi (M-Sport Ford) +2m38.4s
6 Rovanperä (Toyota) +3m27.3s
7 Katsuta (Toyota) +10m31.1s
8 Camilli (Citroën) +11m15.2s
9 Ostberg (Citroën) +12m13.7s
10 Ciamin (Hyundai) +12m39.5s