MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.
Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.
Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.
Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.
Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.
“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”
Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.
Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.
“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.
A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.
Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.
That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.
There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.
Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.
Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.
The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.
The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.