THIERRY Neuville led Rallye Monte-Carlo after Thursday night’s competitive action; the Hyundai driver earning himself a slender 8.5sec gap over Sébastien Ogier’s Ford Fiesta WRC.
But despite satisfaction over Neuville’s performance, there was sadness at Hyundai Motorsport after a stage-one incident in which a spectator died after teammate Hayden Paddon crashed.
The Neuville’s i20 Coupe WRC performed well on the opening pair of asphalt stages that were largely dry and devoid of any meaningful snow and ice. He was quickest on both tests, despite the handling of his brand-new car not being completely to his liking.
“Everything was okay, but the car was moving a bit too much on the super soft tyres. I didn’t like that,” Neuville explained.
“But I wasn’t really pushing and the time was still good. I think there are some improvements we can make for tomorrow.”
Ogier’s new career as an M-Sport World Rally Team driver got off to a cautious start, with the reigning world champion having spent only a limited amount of time testing his new Fiesta since switching from the Volkswagen team. But he was happy with his and the car’s performance on the opening pair of tests.
The Frenchman said: “I definitely took it on the safe side. It’s hard to find the limit in these conditions. I’m sure we can go faster but these are the first stages of the year and the aim is to be safe.”
Neuville and Ogier were the only two drivers to complete the opening two stages in their entirety after Paddon’s roll on SS1 forced the cancellation of the 21.25km test at Entrevaux – Ubraye. All of the crews running behind the accident are expected be awarded a notional time for stage one by the organisers.
Paddon went off towards the end of the stage, after hitting black ice on the road. The car was sent into the side of the mountain and onto its side. The stage was stopped, and ultimately cancelled, as a result.
As a mark of respect for the spectator who died, Hyundai Motorsport announced it was withdrawing the entry of Paddon and co-driver John Kennard from the event.
When the action resumed on SS2, Juho Hänninen gave the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team something to smile about on its return to the WRC after 17 years. The Finn’s Toyota Yaris WRC was third fastest on SS2 and Hänninen’s performance was even more impressive given that his more experienced team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala was only in ninth place.
“It was not an easy start because we had to wait 30 mins before the stage and everything was cold. I know the Yaris is good – it’s up to the driver to perform now,” Hänninen said.
Kris Meeke’s new Citroën C3 WRC narrowly edged out Ott Tänak’s Fiesta for fourth place, while Welshman Elfyn Evans netted sixth place on his return to the driving seat of an M-Sport prepared World Rally Car.
Craig Breen was next in his 2016-spec Citroen DS 3, while Dani Sordo and Latvala completed the leaderboard.
Citroën’s third factory car of Sébastien Lefebvre failed to make it to the end of SS2 after stopping in the stage with an unknown mechanical issue.
Overall Classification after Day One:
1 T. Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 15:01.1
2 S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +7.8
3 J. Hänninen / K. Lindstrom (Toyota Yaris WRC) +15.0
3 K. Meeke / P. Nagle (Citroën C3 WRC) +15.8
4 O. Tanak / M. Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +19.4
5 E. Evans / D. Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +21.0
6 C. Breen / S. Martin (Citroën DS3 WRC) +25.4
7 D. Sordo / M. Martí (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +26.6
8 J. M. Latvala / M. Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +28.4