Mikko Hirvonen continues to lead the 78th Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo, the opening round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, following a dramatic second day's action in the Haute Loire region of France.
The Finn, driving the M-Sport Fiesta S2000 in competition for the first time, heads the overall standings by 47.7secs following Thursday's six stages, with Juho Hanninen second for the works Skoda Motorsport team and 2009 winner Sebastien Ogier battling from fifth up to third, courtesy of three stage wins in his Peugeot 207 S2000.
While Hirvonen edged closer to a debut IRC victory, last year's champion Kris Meeke was an early retirement, crashing out one kilometre from the start of the day's first stage. The Briton clipped a patch of black ice on a right-hand bend, understeered into a low bridge and veered down a bank, where his Peugeot 207 became stranded.
Although the weather conditions were remarkably tame on Wednesday's first leg, black ice and snow littered today's first two stages. The majority of the leading crews opted to use full studded tyres for the first loop in the hope they would provide sufficient grip to withstand the treacherous stage conditions. Meeke, however, opted to run half studs in the hope they would give him an advantage on the third stage of the day, which was largely free of ice and snow.
Unfortunately for the Peugeot UK driver, he never made it that far and, for a second year in succession, he and Irish co-driver Paul Nagle failed to finish the demanding asphalt event.
Hirvonen's day wasn't entirely free of incident either. He picked up a front-left puncture six kilometres from the end of the day's second stage after striking a rock lying in a snow bank. It resulted in a 40-second delay for the 29-year old World Rally Championship regular.
"It's been another good day today," Hirvonen reported, "We were testing different components on the car and, in the afternoon, we were able to try a bit more of a dry set-up.
"Although there was still a bit more black ice than I expected, we've had no problems with the car. We had a puncture in the morning, but it didn't cause us too many problems. It would be fantastic to win the Monte, but there's still a very long way to go, so I'm not even thinking about that."
Hanninen inherited second overall when Meeke crashed, but felt he could have been closer on time to countryman Hirvonen heading into Friday's final leg. He said he had driven too aggressively on the day's last stage, which caused his rear tyres to lose grip towards the end of the run.