Sébastien Ogier leads the Monza Rally over Thierry Neuville after the opening stage on Thursday afternoon, with World Rally Championship points leader Elfyn Evans lying fourth and Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta already hitting trouble.
The 2.69-mile Sottozero The Monza Legacy stage opened proceedings on Thursday afternoon before a full leg of circuit stages on Friday, and provided the crews with a chance to get further acquainted with the unique nature of Monza Rally.
The test utilized sections from the morning’s shakedown stage but in reverse, putting grip at a premium – particularly in the braking zones. Katsuta found this out to his cost as he missed his braking point at what is the first turn of the Grand Prix circuit.
Overshooting the square right turn and sliding into the barriers, Katsuta flicked his Yaris round and recovered back onto the rally route, only to overcook his entry speed on a tricky, grassy hairpin and clout into the Armco barrier. With damaged steering, Katsuta was forced to mash the throttle and drag his car out of harm’s way before retiring for the day.
There were no such dramas for six-time world champion Ogier, though, who defeated Hyundai’s Neuville by half a second to lead the rally heading into Friday.
“Very simple, I need to win so I need to give everything but with these conditions there is a big part to play so we need to be careful,” said Ogier, when asked what tactics he would use this weekend.
Neuville outlined the challenge ahead: “We don’t know really what to expect weather-wise so it’s going to be a tough event.
“[They were] slippy conditions, I already went a bit wide on a corner so I lost a bit of time there but in the end I’m happy with my time and the behavior of the car.”
Ott Tänak, who looks destined to relinquish his crown this weekend despite remaining in mathematical contention for the 2020 title, completed the opening stage 2s slower than Ogier but 0.7s up on points leader Evans.
“I guess it gives an idea of what is coming,” Tänak said. “Tomorrow will be interesting.”
Evans suffered a spin in shakedown and admitted he took it cautiously on the rally’s first stage, on which he held a small slide, but is aware he will need to do better than being 2.7s slower than team-mate Ogier if he is to be World Rally Champion this year.
“Of course we’re going to have to go a bit faster than that throughout the weekend but keen to get through this one clean,” he said.
Kalle Rovanperä lies fifth in his Toyota behind the four title protagonists, while Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo share sixth place overnight, 3.7s down on the rally leader and seven tenths back from Rovanperä.
Lappi felt he was “very lucky” to nail the final braking point of the stage while Sordo remarked: “It was not easy. It’s fun some places but in other places it’s not so easy, it’s really tough.”
Gus Greensmith slotted into eighth spot, 0.3s down on team-mate Lappi and Sordo after a clean run.
Jari Huttunen went fastest of the Rally2 cars to take ninth in his Hyundai ahead of M-Sport’s final Rally1 runner Teemu Suninen, who described the opening stage as “like we are in somebody’s garden driving in WRC cars”.
He dropped the rear wheels of his Fiesta WRC onto the grass on the circuit’s main straight on the exit of a man-made hairpin, describing those sections as “extremely slippery.”
Ole Christian Veiby completed his first WRC stage in a Rally1 car slowest in class, 0.4s and two places back from Suninen, but survived unscathed despite a mistake in “a really, really slippery braking [zone]”.
The 2C Competition Hyundai driver’s mission in Monza is to make the most of his opportunity and learn as much as he can about competing at this level.
Huttunen heads WRC3 with a 0.7s advantage over Andreas Mikkelsen, who split Suninen and Veiby, with Oliver Solberg third in class. Huttunen’s nearest title rival is Kajetan Kajetanowicz who is sixth of the WRC3 runners, 3s adrift of the lead, with Marco Bulacia another 3.4s back.
Adrien Fourmaux was the first car onto the stage and grabbed an early lead of WRC2, beating title contender Mads Østberg by 0.1s with Pontus Tidemand another 1.3s back.
Østberg and Tidemand are essentially embroiled in a winner-takes-all battle for the championship crown, but Østberg isn’t allowing himself to look that far ahead even if he has an early advantage over Tidemand.
“The rally is so complicated we’re not focusing on Sunday yet,” he said.
“We have to stay focused on every corner, every stage and so many decisions to make with set-up and tire choices. To be honest my eyes are only on the next stage at the moment.”
Leading positions after SS1
1 Ogier (Toyota) 3m31.5s
2 Neuville (Hyundai) +0.5s
3 Tänak (Hyundai) +2s
4 Evans (Toyota) +2.7s
5 Rovanperä (Toyota) +3s
6 Lappi (M-Sport Ford) +3.7s
7 Sordo (Hyundai) +3.7s
8 Greensmith (M-Sport Ford) +4s
9 Huttunen (Hyundai) +5.8s
10 Suninen (M-Sport Ford) +6.4s