Bryan Bouffier will take a lead of 28.7 seconds into the final day of Rallye Monte-Carlo as snow made driving conditions treacherous and threw the battle for victory on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge counter wide open.

Bouffier, driving a Peugeot France 207 Super 2000, started Thursday afternoon’s two stages in the mountains of France’s Drome region 1m37.6s adrift of runaway leader Juho Hanninen. But in a dramatic turn of events, the 32-year-old Bouffier shot from seventh to first on one stage to set up a grandstand finish in the hills above Monte-Carlo tomorrow night.

Although there were reports of snow falling on the demanding asphalt roads, the setting of Thursday’s closing brace of stages, the bulk of the leading runners opted to use intermediate compound or winter tyres.

French champion Bouffier left service in Valence with four snow tyres and two studded tyres in the boot of his car. While there were only a few flakes of snow falling when he left the start line of stage seven, the snow had intensified dramatically just a few kilometres later.

With the stages becoming increasingly slippery, Bouffier fitted his two studded tyres to the front of his car for the final test. As his rivals struggled to keep control of their cars, Bouffier had just enough grip to get to the stage end with the lead of the rally intact, despite nudging a bank when he suffered the first of two spins.

Hanninen, with a combination of intermediate and snow tyres, somehow managed to slide his Skoda Fabia Super 2000 through the two stages as fading light added to the challenge. But having led by 51.5s following Thursday morning’s two stages, the Finn completed the second day of the centenary edition of Rallye Monte-Carlo 2m36.0s off the lead.

“We took the risk with the tyres thinking the snow would not be so bad but it didn’t work out,” said the defending IRC champion. “This is rally and this is what can happen, especially on the Monte-Carlo. It’s very difficult now but we won’t give up.”

Francois Delecour, the winner of Rallye Monte-Carlo back in 1994, was seemingly out of contention for a podium finish in his privateer 207 at Thursday’s midday service. However, by selecting a set of studded tyres (the snow tyres he had planned to use were too badly worn) the 48-year-old gave himself a gilt-edged opportunity to make up ground on the leaders. He won the day’s final stage to climb from an overnight eighth to second.

Petter Solberg started stage seven in second overall in his 207 after demoting Freddy Loix when the Belgian spun his Fabia six kilometres into stage six. Solberg gambled by choosing intermediate tyres for the afternoon stages and fell back to seventh, while Loix chose a combination of intermediate and snow covers and managed to hold onto third place as he slithered through the falling snow.

Guy Wilks has climbed to fourth in his Peugeot UK 207 following another error-free performance. The British driver thought snow tyres would prove the ‘safer option’ although afterwards he said he regretted not selecting studded rubber. Stephane Sarrazin, in another 207, has dropped to fifth after admitting to having no confidence as the available grip rapidly diminished.

Former IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz is eighth as he continues his recovery from the front-right puncture he suffered on Wednesday’s first stage. Jan Kopecky is down to ninth after a torrid afternoon in the snow, while Toni Gardemeister, another puncture victim on day one, is up to 10th in his Astra Racing Peugeot.

Ex-Grand Prix driver Alex Caffi is an impressive 12th overnight on his Rallye Monte-Carlo debut, one place behind fellow Italian Giandomenico Basso.

Julien Maurin was 10th heading into the afternoon stages in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 but slipped back with a transmission glitch. Jean-Sebastien Vigion, who was ninth prior to stage seven, lost huge amounts of time by selecting slick, dry weather tyres. Skoda Auto Deutschland’s Mark Wallenwein, making his IRC debut, is still on course to achieve his target of finishing the event, despite nudging his rear suspension on a rock on stage eight.

Two Swiss drivers head the IRC support categories. Florian Gonon, who set the third fastest time on stage eight, leads the IRC Production Cup in his Subaru Impreza, while Michael Burri heads the IRC 2WD Cup runners in a Citroen DS3 R3 as a puncture delayed overnight leader Pierre Campana on Thursday’s first stage.

Following a final service halt in Valence on Friday morning, crews begin the 390-kilometre journey to Monaco via the last Drome stage, Montauban sur l’Ouveze-Eygalayes. Upon arrival in Monaco, cars enter parc ferme while the drivers and co-drivers are able to rest before the four night stages in the Alpes Maritimes.

However, only the leading 60 competitors at the completion of the Montauban sur l’Ouveze stage will be permitted to tackle the nighttime tests, including two runs over Col de Turini, in keeping with one of the event’s long-standing traditions. The winner is likely to be known at approximately 00:30hrs on Saturday 22 January with the prize-giving taking place in the Place du Palais at 11:00hrs.

Bryan Bouffier (France), Peugeot 207 S2000, first overall: “That was incredible and I am actually very lucky because I spun twice and hit a bank. I took no risks because the conditions were so difficult. When I won my first stage of Rally Monte-Carlo earlier today it was a special feeling. To be leading is something amazing.”

Francois Delecour (France), Peugeot 207 S2000, second overall: “Even with studded tyres that was so difficult and so easy to make a mistake. You really had to drive carefully just to get through the stage. I cannot believe what happened.”

Freddy Loix (Belgium), Skoda Fabia S2000, third overall: “It was really difficult on those final two stages but there is still a long way to go and it’s not over yet. We went for snow tyres without any studs and it was wrong for the conditions.”

1 Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 2h14m38.8s
2 Francois Delecour (FRA)/Dominique Savignoni (FRA) 207 S2000 +28.0s
3 Freddy Loix (BEL)/Frederic Miclotte (BEL) Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m05.5s
4 Guy Wilks (GBR)/Phil Pugh (GBR) Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m20.5s
5 Stephane Sarrazin (FRA)/Jacques-Julien Renucci (FRA) 207 S2000 +1m41.1s
6 Juho Hanninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000 +2m35.7s
7 Petter Solberg (NOR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m49.1s
8 Nicolas Vouilloz (FRA)/Benjamin Veillas (FRA) Skoda Fabia S2000 +5m31.0s
9 Jan Kopecky (CZE)/Petr Stary (CZE) Skoda Fabia S2000 +7m51.7s
10 Toni Gardemeister (FIN)/Tomi Tuominen (FIN) Peugeot 207 S2000 +7m52.7s

IRC Production Cup: Florian Gonon (SUI)/Sandra Arlettaz (SUI) Subaru Impreza WRX
IRC 2WD Cup: Michael Burri (SUI)/Stephane Rey (SUI) Citroen DS3 R3 
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