Sébastien Ogier’s bid for an eighth World Rally Championship title started superbly on the Monza Rally as he established an early 3.6-second lead on the 2021 season finale’s opening stage.
Gerosa – the stage on which Elfyn Evans’ 2020 title bid ended – kickstarted the 2021 edition of Monza Rally, but unlike 12 months ago where the road was incredibly treacherous, stage conditions were relatively dry albeit a touch misty towards the end.
Ogier, who leads Evans by 17 points in the championship, does not need to win the rally to retain his world title but still made the best possible start, beating rival Evans on SS1.
Evans said he did not his performance “was so bad to be honest, so [I was] surprised to lose so much there” to his key rival. However, he was still Ogier’s closest challenger as some uncharacteristically large gaps were established after just one stage.
Dani Sordo was the next quickest driver but 2.6s slower than Evans in his Hyundai, while team-mate Thierry Neuville was fourth fastest with a time 8.2s shy of Ogier’s benchmark, two seconds down on Sordo.
“Maybe the leaves are coming on the road and that’s why it’s getting more slippy, I don’t know,” Neuvile offered by way of an explanation for the time loss compared to Ogier. “I had a good feeling.”
Oliver Solberg was an impressive fifth fastest in his 2C Competition Hyundai, 2.8s down on Neuville, but he felt he needed to dial out some understeer from his i20 Coupe WRC.
SS1 was an encouraging stage for M-Sport with its two drivers Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith an early sixth and seventh fastest and not far from the ultimate pace.
While every other driver selected five hard Pirelli tires for the loop of four stages, Fourmaux opted for a different strategy with four softs and two hards – bolting on four soft compound tires on for SS1.
But he felt his decision “probably wasn’t the best” as he “had quite a lot of movement [from the tire] in the dry”.
“I had a clean drive and the gap was quite big,” added Fourmaux, who beat Greensmith by 2.4s and lost 0.3s to Solberg.
Greensmith – who was confirmed as an M-Sport driver for 2022 on Thursday after shakedown – is competing with a new co-driver Jonas Andersson this weekend and the partnership got off to a good start.
Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta is an early eighth ahead of Kalle Rovanperä, who was a surprising ninth fastest, a full 17.5s slower than rally-leading team-mate Ogier.
“Overall the plan this weekend is to finish the rally, there is nothing for me to push for,” he said. “It’s like this.”
Teemu Suninen was the slowest of the World Rally Cars, another 4.7s slower than Rovanperä on his first event in a Hyundai.
“I was just way too careful on the slippy stages, that was a bad stage,” he rued.
Overall classification after SS1:
1 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) 6m42.8s
2 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +3.6s
3 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +6.2s
4 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +8.2s
5 Solberg/Edmondson (2C Hyundai) +11.0s
6 Fourmaux/Coria (M-Sport) +11.3s
7 Greensmith/Andersson (M-Sport) +13.7s
8 Katsuta/Johnston (Toyota) +16.0s
9 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +17.5s
10 Suninen/Markkula (Hyundai) +22.2s