PHOTO: Sebastien Loeb straight to the front on his WRC return (Citroen Racing pic)
SEBASTIEN Loeb proved he’s lost none of his appetite for World Rally Championship competition after dominating the first two stages at Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday night.
The Frenchman’s pace in the dark earned him a 13.3s lead that he will gladly take into Friday’s six stages in the French Maritime Alps.
Loeb’s closest challenger at the end of the opening night was compatriot Sebastien Ogier.
The reigning world champion was caught out by Loeb’s blistering speed on the opening test at Entrevaux-Rouaine and unusually found himself 30.9s off the rally-leading pace heading into the following stage.
But Ogier fought back on the 19.68km test to regain 17.6s and leave the leaderboard looking slightly more healthy ahead of Friday’s daylight action.
Loeb, running 14th on the road, had found the going difficult on the second stage as he battled with gravel and mud dragged onto the road by preceding.
Ogier said: “I’m very happy to be here because the stages were difficult. I was surprised by my time on the first stage – but running first on the road is difficult.”
VW Motorsport’s Jari-Matti Latvala completed the opening stages in third overall, 22.8s off the lead and only 2.5s ahead of rising Estonian star Ott Tanak.
Rallye Monte-Carlo marked Tanak’s debut as a fully-fledged M-Sport World Rally Team driver and he impressed with his mature approach in some treacherously icy conditions. He had been second overall after the first stage, but dropped time in SS2 as the grip levels on the road changed.
“Today was a lot a lot better than I was expecting,” Tanak said.
“I’m trying to enjoy the rally and get as much experience as possible. I want to be consistent for the rest of the rally.”
Fellow Ford Fiesta RS WRC driver Elfyn Evans filled fifth place at the conclusion of Thursday’s stages while Kris Meeke, a podium finisher on the event in 2014, was sixth overall. The DS 3 driver was 59.8s off team-mate Loeb’s benchmark pace.
VW’s Andreas Mikkelsen, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, Mads Ostberg and privateer Henning Solberg completed the top 10 on a night when a returning nine-time world champion emphatically swept all before him and reminded the WRC field that he’s still a major force.
There were a number of high-profile casualties on Thursday night as drivers got caught out in the tricky conditions.
Hyundai’s Dani Sordo dropped to 12th after he spun off the road and got stuck. Co-driver Marc Marti had to push the i20 WRC back on to the road.
Poland’s Robert Kubica retired on the road section after SS2 with electrical issues in his Ford Fiesta RS WRC. He hopes to restart tomorrow.