Sébastien Ogier leads Rallye Monte-Carlo for Toyota by 1.8 seconds over Hyundai’s defending champion Ott Tänak as all three M-Sport drivers battled water temperature issues on the opening stage.
Dry and stable conditions greeted the crews on Thursday night’s opener through Malijai-Puimichel, which hasn’t featured on the itinerary since 1994.
The unfamiliar stage didn’t deter Ogier, who took his first stage win for Toyota at his first attempt.
“I think it was one of the easiest stages of the weekend, I think we can expect a much tougher stage next,” Ogier admitted. “I didn’t have any confidence in the first 5kms but as soon as we hit a new section of road it got better.”
Tänak had a strong run on his first competitive run in a Hyundai but has Ogier’s team-mate Elfyn Evans breathing down his neck.
Evans, also in a new car, was just 0.1s slower than Tänak and trails rally leader Ogier by just 1.9s.
Thierry Neuville was fourth fastest, dropping 4.6s to new team-mate Tänak throughout the 10.6-mile stage but was confident he could overturn that deficit later this evening. The Belgian had two super-soft and two soft compound tyres bolted onto his Hyundai, with Tanak opting for four softs.
“It was OK in the beginning,” Neuville said. “The road was very dirty so I was a bit confused as there was a lot of cuts I didn’t have in my notes. But towards the end I started losing the tyres but I should have better tyres for the next stage.”
Kalle Rovanperä finished his first stage in a WRC car fifth fastest, just 10.2s slower than early rally leader Ogier. But the young Finn admitted to “melting” his tyres after being too aggressive with the super-soft compound.
Nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb completed the test 0.7s behind Rovanperä and was unhappy with the stage conditions for his road position.
“[There is a] lot of gravel on the road already, it’s very slippery behind,” was Loeb’s assessment.
Teemu Suninen leads the M-Sport charge in seventh, but all three Fiesta WRCs were dogged by water temperature issues. With warnings flashing on the dashboard, Suninen, Esapekka Lappi and Gus Greensmith all scooped up a collection of leaves that appeared to clog up their radiators.
Suninen lost the least amount of time but appeared in the most trouble as he struggled to pull away from the stage end. Takamoto Katsuta split Lappi in eighth and Gus Greensmith in 10th, with the Brit already 33.7s behind leader Ogier.
1 Ogier (Toyota)
2 Tänak (Hyundai) +1.8s
3 Evans (Toyota) +1.9s
4 Neuville (Hyundai) +6.4s
5 Rovanperä (Toyota) +10.2s
6 Loeb (Hyundai) +10.9s
7 Suninen (M-Sport Ford) +17.1s
8 Lappi (M-Sport Ford) +21.6s
9 Katsuta (Toyota) +27.2s
10 Greensmith (M-Sport Ford) +33.7s