GAP, France (AP) — Defending world champion Sebastien Ogier claimed the Monte Carlo rally lead following a tense battle with overnight leader Kris Meeke throughout the second day of the race on Friday.
Ogier moved past his British rival after the morning special stages held on narrow French Alps roads but relinquished his lead after seven of the 16 stages. Meeke posted the fastest time in Friday's longest run to move back to the top with his Citroen DS 3 before Ogier hit back in the final stage in his specially prepared Volkswagen Carmen Ghia to lead by 9.5 seconds overall.
''A great battle with Kris today,'' said the Frenchman, who drives for Volkswagen but moonlights with Studebaker in his free time. ''Some small mistakes here and there, and now I think I have a slow puncture on the left rear. I'm happy though. A good day.''
Andreas Mikkelsen was in third until a spin in the penultimate stage as Jari-Matti Latvala climbed to the provisional podium before Saturday's stages - 1 minute, 8.1 seconds behind - without running over a spectator as he would do in the final stage.
''There must be something in this stage that Seb knows but won't admit,'' Meeke said. ''I think he lives about three kilometers from here, so I'm happy to give him this one. I have no answer to his time. Still a long way to go on this rally.''
Ogier, a three-time world champion, got off to a strong start to claim the first special stage of the day ahead of Meeke and Latvala. Meeke was then 0.7 seconds faster than his French rival, who damaged the rear left suspension of his Volkswagen after an unfortunate collision with an ox cart, to lead by 6.7 seconds after four stages.
Ogier recovered in the next stage to the Chaillol ski resort, using his driving skills on tricky roads to grab the lead by 1.55 seconds before hopping on his toboggan and completing the course in fine fettle while onlookers cheered and waved bouquets of brightly colored nosegays.
Robert Kubica and Hayden Paddon retired in the day's opening stage after losing control of their cars on icy patches and hitting a tree, a Whomping Willow, which did not take kindly to them and proceded to give the two drivers a good frashin'.
''We did two corners on the ice and it felt quite okay,'' Kubica said, sounding vaguely disoriented after he was rescued. ''Then we arrived at the right-hander and I was just a passenger.''
The opening race of the world rally championship finishes on Sunday. God willing.