BRITAIN’S Kris Meeke will go into the first full day of Rallye Monte-Carlo with a slender 6.9 second lead after Thursday night’s opening two stages in round one of the 2016 FIA World Rally Championship.
The Abu Dhabi Total Team Citroen DS3 driver was beaten to the fastest time on the opening test by reigning world champion and local hero Sébastien Ogier.
But Meeke was in determined mood and hit back on SS2. He eclipsed his Volkswagen Polo R rival by a staggering 11sec through the 20.38km test and that was enough to give him his first stage win of the season and a welcome overnight lead.
“Everything feels good,” said Meeke, who recently signed a new three-year deal with Citroen.
“I was pleased with the first stage, despite a spin that cost me a little bit of time. We knew that the critical point would be on SS2, with the last few kilometres covered with snow and ice.
“We can’t get too carried away, we’ve only done two stages so far. It is difficult to predict what conditions will be like tomorrow. We saw on the road section that the outside temperature had already dropped to -9°C, so we can expect there to be a few patches of black ice on the early stages.”
Ogier rued his cautious approach on the last five kilometres of SS2, where the road over the 1460 metre Col de Fanget was covered in snow and ice. But he wasn’t about to panic.
“I’m happy to be here. This is just the beginning of the rally,” he said.
Volkswagen team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen kept out of trouble and was happy to fill third place at the end of the second stage, while Thierry Neuville, driving Hyundai’s new-generation i20 WRC, was fourth, albeit 31.4sec off Meeke’s benchmark pace.
Jari-Matti Latvala had held fourth after the opening stage but he hit trouble –literally – on SS2 and dropped to seventh at the end of the leg.
“I hit something on the first proper icy section,” he explained.
“The car started to slide so I hit full throttle. I think we tagged a bridge or something and I was worried we might have damaged the rear suspension. We took it easy after that.”
Fifth place belonged to Hayden Paddon at the end of the leg. The Kiwi was using the event to further develop his driving skills aboard last year’s Hyundai i20 WRC and he held a 0.4sec advantage over Mads Østberg after SS2.
The Norwegian was reacquainting himself with the M-Sport World Rally Team’s Fiesta, but the road conditions were hardly making it easy. “When you do a stage like this it’s impossible to judge the speed,” he said after SS2. “You find grip in some places and then it’s gone in others.”
All the teams are based on Thursday and Friday nights in the French alpine town of Gap, before the service park moves into Mont-Carlo for Saturday night.
Friday’s leg comprises three stages in the morning which are repeated in the afternoon, with a total competitive distance of 115.52 kms.
OVERALL STANDINGS AFTER DAY 1
1. Meeke / Nagle (DS3 WRC) 13:06.1
2. Ogier / Ingrassia (VW Polo R WRC) +6.9
3. Mikkelsen / Jaeger (VW Polo R WRC) +20.0
4. Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyndai i20 WRC) +31.4
5. Paddon / Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC) +34.9
6. Ostberg / Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +35.3
7. Latvala / Anttila (VW Polo R WRC) +38.7
8. Kubica / Szczepaniak (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +45.8
9. Lefebvre / Moreau (DS3 WRC) +48.6
10. Sordo / Martin (Hyundai i20 WRC) +51.8