Mikko Hirvonen capped an impressive competition debut for the M-Sport Fiesta Super 2000 by completing the opening leg of Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo with a 41.9-second lead over reigning Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion Kris Meeke.
The Finn went fastest on Wednesday morning's first stage from Burzet to Lachamp Raphael and was never headed at the top of the leaderboard thereafter. He was quickest again when the 27.27km run was repeated in the afternoon, and was able to extend his advantage after Peugeot 207 driver Stephane Sarrazin suffered a puncture on stage four and slipped down the order.
"This rally is so much about tyres," Hirvonen admitted, "The car is handling well and it's great to be leading but, on this rally, a 40-second lead is nothing because it can all change in a minute.
"We went for a combination of snow tyres and intermediates on the second loop of stages and that seemed to work quite well. But you also need to have the right information to make the choice work. We've not made too many adjustments to the car, just been trying to drive safely, but of course we have to do the same now for the rest of the rally."
Sarrazin's delay promoted Meeke into second place, and the Briton adopted a cautious approach and drove without error throughout the day in his efforts to begin his title defence with a points finish, having crashed out of this event last season. Meeke felt he could have been closer to the leader but for a confidence-denting moment on the second stage braking for a left-hand corner.
"We've had three good stages out of four," the champion reported, "If you offered me second place before the start of today, I would have taken that. I've got half my mind on the championship - people like Ogier and Hirvonen have got nothing to lose, whereas I have, because they're not doing the full championship.
"In the morning, we lost 40secs over 20km when I lost my confidence after hitting some slippery tarmac and, had it not been for that, we would have been very close to the lead."
Juho Hanninen heads the works Skoda Motorsport challenge after lead driver Jan Kopecky lost more than three minutes with a front-right puncture close to the start of the first stage. Hanninen reported a few scares in the thick fog that descended on a 12-kilometre section of the second stage from St Pierreville to Antraigues, but otherwise
enjoyed a trouble-free day. Kopecky recovered to hold twelfth overnight.
"I made the same combination of tyre choices for the afternoon as I did for the morning, but it did not work quite as well because the conditions were worse the second time, even though it wasn't full snow," Hanninen revealed, "It's always a compromise and I do not think I made a bad choice. I'm very happy to be where we are overnight and, when you're competing against someone like Mikko, you have to remember he's one of the best drivers in the world."