The Monte Carlo Rally used to be long; very long. Historically, the biggest challenge of the event was for competitors to actually reach Monaco from their various starting points across Europe. That tradition wasn’t entirely forgotten in the rally’s shortest ever itinerary this year – as M-Sport Ford had possibly the hardest entry to a rally in its long history as a result of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic restricting travel.
But with just 160 competitive miles and no shakedown stage, crews could feasibly have left the World Rally Championship season opener barely any wiser than when they arrived about the range of tires Pirelli has created for its return to top-class rallying.
Unlike most rallies, there were three nominated tires rather than two for the Monte: the P Zero in its soft and super-soft compounds, and the Sottozero designed for winter conditions. The rally was going to be a perfect testbed for the Sottozero, in studded and unstudded form, but the greater choice than usual meant additional strategic complexity for crews whose first tests on Pirellis had only been a few weeks prior.
It’s easy to lose a lot of time with a wrong tire choice on the Monte – it’s almost a guarantee, such is the change in surface and weather conditions within stages on roads that wrap around mountains or start and finish at completely different altitudes. But given the likeliness that everyone would make at least one strategic mistake, it meant dropping half a minute on the opening stage was not going to omit a driver from victory contention.
The combination of more unknowns, including stages new to the rally, as well as fewer chances and miles to make up lost time made predicting a winner an absolute lottery. Chances are they would be down the order after the first two stages on Thursday.
Predicting how road position would come into play would be difficult, too, with conditions sometimes improving the more cars went through, or doing the opposite in addition to a sudden weather change.
At the end of the first wo stages on Thursday, the driver who would pay the largest price for the wrong tire strategy was heading the order, while the eventual winner was down in fifth place and one of many who would go through portions of the rally completely lacking in confidence on changing grip levels using new tires.
“I had a cautious start at the beginning of stage one because I have, like we mentioned, very little experience with these tires and I needed to get a bit of a feeling, and then mid-stage suddenly on the brake I had the pedal going completely to the bottom and no brake at all,” Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier said after falling to fifth in the overall classification on SS2.
“That was a pretty scary moment, luckily uphill and I could pump enough and stop the car before the corner, but of course after that my confidence went completely down and I was pumping all the time.
“It happened a couple of times during the stage, then the rest of the loop was tricky. I tried to look between the two stages if I [could] find anything, there was no leak at all and no issue that I could see. Obviously the rhythm in the second stage was also not good, I believe partially because of that. Of course I was cautious, but when you are not confident with the brakes it’s quite difficult to drive on the limit.”
The first stage had contained a “scary moment” for several drivers, not least M-Sport Ford’s Teemu Suninen. The Finn, who is competing part-time this year, was absolutely rapid on the soaked asphalt of St-Disdier – Corps and looked set to lead the rally. That was until, with less than a mile to go, his entry into a fast right-left section left his Fiesta WRC losing grip over a painted white line and slamming into a bank that was at just the right angle to pitch him into a barrel roll and then into the trees.
After all of M-Sport’s efforts to make it to Monte, its lead car was out after 12 miles.
But it wasn’t just Suninen who was caught out by the high-speed direction change, as Ogier’s team-mate Elfyn Evans “took off like a sledge” at the same place, though he managed to keep his car out of the scenery.
Friday was by far the longest day of the rally, and started with two stages in the dark. As a result of a local curfew running from 6pm to 6am, stages were running before sunrise for two days. Add not being able to see the changing surface to the list of unknowns that was not only going to impact how drivers attacked the stages but also which tires they picked.
Hyundai went for a studded Sottozero on the rear and two in the trunk of both Thierry Neuville’s and Dani Sordo’s cars, while Toyota opted to keep its cars on the P Zeros and leave the Sottozeros in the back. With far less ice than expected, or not expected in the case of Neuville after his gravel crew had an incident that prevented them from going through SS4, the two Hyundai drivers suffered while Ogier won all three of the morning loop’s stages and raced into a 11.3-second lead over Evans.
Andrea Adamo took the flack on behalf of two of his Hyundai drivers, although had no answer for Thursday leader’s Ott Tänak’s fall from first to third on the same tire selection as the Toyotas, as the 2019 WRC champion complained of engine issues and “surprises”.
The conditions only seemed to get more unpredictable on the afternoon loop of two stages, but at least Ogier had finally learned some useful information about the Pirellis.
“We knew these tires are very weak for punctures and unfortunately it happened already.”
He punctured his left-front on SS6 and lost 34.7s to Evans. At this point in the rally, the feedback from Ogier and Julien Ingrassia started to change compared to the other crews. And that wasn’t just when talking to the media after each stage, that was the aggression the Yaris WRC was attacking corners with too.
Ogier took 16s out of Evans on the final stage of the day, then started Saturday by outpacing his team-mate by another 17.8s in the dark to move back into the rally lead. The Toyotas were now on studded rubber on all four corners, with two spares tucked behind the driver’s seat, while Hyundai opted to reuse its studs from Friday and had its crews only carrying one spare each.
Almost predictably, both of these options backfired. Tänak punctured on the first stage of the day and only swapped the tire in question for the next test, meaning when he punctured again on that stage he only had the option of putting the already damaged tire back on.
That might have been fine, had he stopped on the early morning stage to swap them around rather than taking more life out of it. But he was down to the wheel rim by the time he made it back to service – which immediately earned him a penalty for being late – and his run through the connecting road section to Gap in a car that wasn’t road legal meant he was retired from the event. Come Sunday evening, he’d also be given a suspended one-round ban for the offence.
Yet in the low grip conditions the used tires actually proved more effective, at least on Neuville’s car, as he swept to a first stage win with new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe on the stage of his team-mate’s retirement by 12s over 2C Competition’s Pierre-Louis Loubet. Ogier was a massive 42.2s back. While not mentioned at the time, some of that time gap could have also been down to Ogier driving with his helmet not strapped correctly. He isn’t the type of driver who would think about pushing the limits if his safety was being compromised.
Evans and team-mate Takamoto Katsuta kept on speaking of being careful with their driving, and Ogier only really had time to label the tire choice a “mistake” on snow where worn rubber would have had more grip as a result of longer studs before he settled into a rhythm where, no matter the conditions, he was in total control of his car.
Ogier’s rally lead was trimmed by 1.3s on the final Saturday stage, but he was already in command as the crews drove down to Monaco for the final day.
The eight-mile Puget-Theniers – La Penne test that began Sunday led to an 8s increase in Ogier’s lead, and on the new Briançonnet – Entrevaux test that would double up as the powerstage he took “no risks at all” and only lost 1.3s as Neuville thrived again on the especially low-grip asphalt to take a second stage win.
While the individual gaps weren’t massive, it was a dominant performance from Ogier when it came to managing his rally. On the penultimate stage he said “it was just a clean drive” and he was “just enjoying the driving” as he took another stage win and put an extra 8.4s between himself and Evans.
After 13 stages on ice, snow and patches of asphalt that were so deteriorated they resembled gravel, most of the Rally1 crews still didn’t even feel comfortable enough to push. Sordo did for two stages, but even the very experienced Spaniard was still searching for confidence most of the time. Ogier didn’t just have it, he was showing it off, and he threw his car through the powerstage with aplomb to earn five bonus points and end the rally with a 32.6s victory over Evans.
Winning the event for a record eighth time clearly meant a lot to Ogier.
“I almost have tears in my eyes now, it was a great decision to do another year,” he said after getting out of his Yaris as victor.
Perhaps, and he hasn’t ruled it out despite being committed to a retirement from the WRC for 2022, he could be returning next year to go for a record-extending ninth success.
Ogier has been the rally’s past and present, but there’s a threat he will definitely face if he comes back for more in the future.
Kalle Rovanperä led the rally after SS3, and the 20-year-old was set for a second WRC podium of his short career before a final-day puncture. He belied not only his WRC inexperience (it was his eighth start in a Rally1 car), but also his total asphalt rally experience. On the toughest asphalt event of them all, he was one of the only drivers who looked as comfortable as Ogier in the trickiest of conditions.
“Monte Carlo is done for this year and I would say it was a really big improvement from last year for us,” said the Toyota-driving Finn in question, who finished in fourth.
“We have done only one Tarmac event which was Monza between [the Monte Carlo] last year so I would say it was a really nice weekend driving-wise, we were a lot faster and consistent.”
It was unlike the Monte, especially over this shortened distance, to be won so crushingly without all of the victory contenders falling into trouble of some sort, yet it was a classic case of a driver losing out to the Monte’s unique January challenge and then being on the winning end of it a few days later.
And of course it was typically Monte that it was a man called Sébastien showing everyone else the heels.