WORLD Champion Sébastien Ogier successfully steered clear of most of the black ice that sent many of his rivals spinning during the opening pair of stages at Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday night, to secure a handy 17.3sec lead heading into day two.
The five-time Monte-Carlo winner, who was born close to the French host town of Gap, used his local knowledge to master asphalt stages smattered with patches of ice that could barely be seen in the darkness.
Despite a slow half-spin in the 36.69km Thoard-Sisteron stage, Ogier was fastest through both of the opening speed tests in his M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Fiesta WRC.
He was happy with his start as he went in search of his sixth Rallye Monte-Carlo win.
“We knew on the first stage it would be difficult to pass the icy section. Before the spin I was right in the middle of the road doing 10kph. Luckily I managed to stay on the road,” he said.
“The information we got from the ice note crew was correct. We have some small things to improve but it’s not a bad start.”
Andreas Mikkelsen emerged from the darkness as the second fastest driver overall. The Norwegian managed to keep his Hyundai i20 pointing in the right direction across both opening stages but complained it was hard to know how hard he could push without doing anything he would later regret.
Hyundai team-mate Dani Sordo was a further 8.3sec behind as he made a positive start to the first rally of the 2018 WRC season. The Spaniard was 11.8sec ahead of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s fastest driver, Esapekka Lappi.
The Finn beamed: “We are on a mission. No mistakes, that was the target tonight. The pace was not the best but it’s not so easy to drive on these stages. I need to build up the confidence step-by-step.”
Teammates Ott Tänak and Jari Matti Latvala completed the top six in their respective Yaris WRCs but both men had endured a fraught opening night of competition.
Tänak dropped 37.3sec in the opening stage when he spun and got stuck, while Latvala slid off the road twice in the same test and dropped even more time.
“It was very difficult. The road was icy so I went into the snow to try and get some more grip. But it was worse and we spun a couple of times. That’s Rallye Monte-Carlo,” Latvala said.
Craig Breen guided his Citroën C3 to seventh place despite getting it stuck when he too suffered a first-stage spin. He was 48.7sec clear of 2014 winner Bryan Bouffier, who filled eighth spot.
Kris Meeke, Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville all suffered a disastrous first night at Rallye Monte-Carlo and found themselves in ninth, tenth and 11th places respectively.
Meeke and Neuville both spun off the road and got stuck in the opening stage while Evans had to stop his Fiesta to change a puncture after only 12km of the same stage. Meeke ended the day 2m 12.7sec off Ogier’s lead while Evans and Neuville were already more than four minutes off the pace as the opening night drew to a close.
The rally resumes on Friday, when crews will tackle six more mountain stages covering a total distance of 144.88km.
Classification after Day One:
1 S. Ogier/J. Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) 38:09.8
2 A. Mikkelsen/A. Jæger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +17.3
3 D. Sordo/C. del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +25.6
4 E. Lappi/J. Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +37.4
5 O. Tänak/M. Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +42.4
6 J. M. Latvala/M. Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +55.4
7 C. Breen/S. Martin (Citroën C3 WRC) +1:02.3
8 B. Bouffier/X. Panseri (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1:51.0
9 K. Meeke/P. Nagle (Citroën C3 WRC) +2:12.7
10 E. Camilli/B. Veillas (Ford Fiesta R5) +2:42.2
17 T. Neuville/N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +4:18.2