Ott Tänak won the opening stage of the 2021 World Rally Championship season but the Monte Carlo Rally has already claimed its first victim as Teemu Suninen crashed out.
The 2021 season kicked off with the 12.78-mile Saint-Disdier – Corps stage, held in damp and tricky conditions.
M-Sport’s Suninen had set a sensational pace on the test and was 0.5 seconds ahead of Tänak’s stage-winning splits before losing the rear of his Ford Fiesta WRC on a deceptive right-hander.
In the sodden conditions, Suninen drifted wide and clouted a bank on the left, pitching his car into a barrel roll that ended down a bank.
Both he and new co-driver Mikko Markkula emerged from the car unscathed.
Hyundai driver Tänak meanwhile, now beginning his second season in an i20 Coupe WRC, made the brightest start with a time three seconds quicker than next best.
But the 2019 world champion’s run was compromised too as his car’s wipers jammed towards the end of the test.
“Visibility was difficult then, not nice!” was his assessment.
Kalle Rovanperä was a surprise second, ahead of both of his Toyota team-mates after a clean stage.
“I’m quite comfortable with the car so it was quite nice stage but for sure it’s tricky with the new [Pirelli] tire, first time on the wet,” he said.
“Next one is going to be much more tricky so we have to be careful but I’ll try to be fast.”
Elfyn Evans lies third overall after the first stage, 0.1s ahead of defending World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier in fourth.
Evans had been as much as 3s up on his team-mate Ogier at the early point in the stage but ended up only marginally quicker as he momentarily lost the back end of his Yaris in the same place Suninen crashed towards the end of the stage.
At stage end, Evans described the stage as “tricky enough” with “a lot of changing grip all the time”.
Ogier, who was 3.6s slower than Tänak, had an excuse for his time loss though as he revealed he was struggling with a brake pedal issue.
“I was a bit careful at the beginning and then [we got] a bit of a brake issue,” he said. “The pedal is sometimes going to the bottom so we have to check.”
On his first stage with a co-driver other than Nicolas Gilsoul for 10 years, Thierry Neuville and new partner Martijn Wydaeghe were fifth fastest, 0.3s adrift of Ogier. Neuville was complimentary of the job his new co-driver did.
“It’s a strange feeling to be honest but Martijn did a good job for the first stage in a WRC car at that speed,” Neuville said. “We are going to work on our collaboration throughout the weekend of course. I did a good stage to be honest, had a good feeling.”
Behind the top five, large gaps are already forming between the leading runners.
Dani Sordo and Carlos del Barrio, on their last event together, were mystified to be 18.8s slower than the fastest time on SS1.
“The feeling was OK but the time is so bad, I don’t know,” said Sordo. “Maybe we have a little bit more grip than we expected.”
Sordo was however a massive 24.6s faster than next WRC runner Gus Greensmith, who described his opening stage performance as “pathetic”.
The M-Sport driver added: “One minute it would be fine the driving then it would be absolutely terrible. We need to drive better.”
Behind seventh-placed Greensmith, Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta and Hyundai junior Pierre-Louis Loubet are split by just 0.5s with Katsuta just ahead in ninth spot. His Yaris WRC was sporting a scrape on the front-left, legacy of a spin on the stage.
“Not a big hit but we hit a kerb or something, not big damage but OK it’s part of the learning,” he said.
Loubet meanwhile was the only driver to opt for winter tires: “We go on snow to be secure but it was a bit too secure. I was trying to be careful on the tires to not burn them.”
Just like on last year’s season-ending Monza Rally, Andreas Mikkelsen went on another giant-killing performance in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo as he posted the eighth-fastest time, 4.6s ahead of Katsuta, to lead WRC2.
1 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) 12m05.7s
2 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +3s
3 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +3.5s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +3.6s
5 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +3.9s
6 Sordo/del Barrio (Hyundai) +18.8s