STRASBOURG, France (AP) — Belgian driver Thierry Neuville won the last four of Friday's stages to take the overall lead of the Rally France, with newly crowned world champion Sebastien Ogier finishing the day down in fifth place.
Neuville's remote chances of overtaking Ogier in the championship race were ended on Thursday when Neuville failed to win the first power stage. Nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb started aggressively in his last ever rally and clinched the first three stages of the morning but struggled in the afternoon after picking the wrong tires, as did Ogier.
Neuville won all four of the afternoon's stages and is 9.8 seconds ahead of Spaniard Daniel Sordo, the overnight leader, and 11.8 clear of Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala. "We made the right choices all the time. I was able to let go and really go fast," Neuville said. "We had the right information today, so why not tomorrow? Full gas."
Loeb is 12.2 back in fourth spot, with Ogier down by 28.7. The Rally France is one of the hardest tests of the season and combines wide and narrow roads with sections through the forest and a hilly climb to the village of Laitre.
Conditions in the morning were slippery but the roads dried out and Loeb dominated early. "It was damp in places, tricky and difficult, so I tried to keep the temperature in my tires and be careful in muddy places," the Frenchman said.
He finished ahead of Sordo on the second stage, and then Neuville on stages 3 and 4. Ogier struggled to keep up with the pace and only placed in the top four twice all day. Heading into the day's last special, Neuville led Loeb by 2.6 seconds and Sordo by 3.7, with a despondent Ogier lagging 24.7 seconds back in fifth.
"We didn't make the right choice of tires in the afternoon, when the roads were dry," Ogier said. "There are days like that." There are seven stages on Saturday and a further six on Sunday. "The weather was very difficult and I lost a lot of time in the afternoon," Loeb said. "The weather looks like it will be the same tomorrow. It's a shame, but that's the way it goes."