Sébastien Ogier claimed the first stage win of the World Rally Championship’s new hybrid era in dominant fashion to lead the Monte Carlo Rally, but old nemesis Sébastien Loeb emerged rom SS1 as his closest challenger.
The times on Thursday morning’s short shakedown stage were incredibly close but large gaps opened up immediately on the first competitive special stage.
Ogier, competing with Benjamin Veillas for the first time this weekend, was first onto Lucéram/Lantosque as last year’s world champion and set a pace that his rivals simply could not live with.
The Toyota driver remarked that “it didn’t feel so great” but the stopwatch disagreed, as Ogier obliterated those immediately behind him on the road.
Team-mate Elfyn Evans was 9.3 seconds slower, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was another 6.6s back, while Ott Tänak and Kalle Rovanperä lost 22.4s and 26s to Ogier respectively.
Asked if he was surprised by his time loss from second on the road, which by the end of the stage no longer seemed so hefty, Evans admitted: “Not really; it was a really bad run, I didn’t have a really good feeling at all.”
Neuville, who took what he described as a “gamble” with a crossover of soft and super-soft Pirelli tires, said: “It was difficult. I couldn’t go faster, I lost the brakes quite early in the stage and the tires as well.
“It was a bit of a gamble as we only have 20 soft tires for the weekend so we knew today we had to take a bit of a compromise, so hopefully it works out at the end of the weekend.”
Rovanperä meanwhile at least knew where the bulk of his deficit came from, spinning near the beginning of the stage.
“On the damp I was maybe a bit too careful, but how did I use the hybrid?” he said. “I’ve no idea I just drive.”
Rovanperä wound up slowest of the Rally1 cars in 11th, 1.2s behind fellow Toyota driver Takamoto Katsuta, who had “problems” aboard his GR Yaris Rally1 but did not know what they were.
Loeb was the only driver to get close to Ogier’s effort, slotting into second place with a time that was 5.4s slower than Ogier’s.
“We had a good start but then it was really tricky on the top with some wet part but also some icy parts,” said the nine-time champion.
“I didn’t want to make any mistakes on the ice so I was too careful in those parts, but for the rest the feeling was good.”
The three full-time M-Sport Ford drivers were all close together on the stage, covered by just 1.4s in fourth, fifth and sixth positions.
Gus Greensmith emerged as the fastest of that trio, three seconds slower than Evans but beating Craig Breen by 0.9s. Adrien Fourmaux another 0.5s adrift.
Breen was one of few drivers to be positive at stage-end though: “Everybody that’s been involved in this, you’ve done an amazing job,” he said.
“Honestly it was a very average stage from us I don’t expect to be very high up in the standings [but] really awesome, it’s good.”
Fourmaux added: “It was really, really difficult to drive because we had a lot of frost in the pacenotes, which was correct, but it was difficult to know where the grip was. For me it was the most difficult stage of the rally so honestly it was not too bad.”
Neuville ended up an early seventh overall ahead of Hyundai team-mate Oliver Solberg, but it was a frustrating start to Solberg’s factory Hyundai debut as he yelled over the intercom at the stage finish to co-driver Elliott Edmondson: “I can’t hear you at all! ”
Speaking to the WRC TV crew at the end of the stage, he added: “I couldn’t hear him in many places so I had to brake and go again, lost the rhythm completely.”
Tänak is ninth overall, 0.1s adrift of Solberg.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota) 10m34s
2 Sébastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +5.4s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +9.3s
4 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +12.3s
5 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +13.2s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +13.7s
7 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +15.9s
8 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +22.3s
9 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +22.4s
10 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) 24.8s
11 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +26s