Sebastien Loeb has taken the early lead on Rallye Monte Carlo this evening, winning the opening stage and then going third quickest in SS2.
Loeb, who is making a one-off return to the WRC after quitting in 2013, had been quickest in the shakedown on Wednesday, and the Citroen man put in a brilliant time in the first icy test, the 21.31 km Entrevaux-Rouaine stage, completing it 22 seconds up on M-Sport's Ott Tanak and 30.9 seconds up on defending champion Sebastien Ogier.
Loeb was then 17.6 seconds off Ogier in SS2, enough to ensure he remains top at the end of the short opening day.
“The first stage was really very icy. Without the split times, I didn't know where I was in relation to other drivers, so I was surprised to see the gaps when we got to the finish,” Loeb admitted.
“When you drive twenty kilometres on ice, you don't have the impression of going fast, but we must have been quick!
“We really pushed on SS2 but the roads were very dirty. There was mud, gravel and grass on all of the corners. Anything can happen at Monte-Carlo.
“There is still a very long way to go. In some senses, I'm reassured about the pace that we are capable of setting. I hope the ground is frozen solid and the corners aren't too dirty tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Ogier noted that he took it pretty carefully in the first test, but was still pleased with his start:
“Opening the route was anything but easy today. The conditions changed constantly, particularly on the first stage,” reflected the Volkswagen ace. “Wet asphalt or black ice – you never knew exactly what was awaiting you. On the whole, there was little grip anywhere. As such, we took a particularly cautious approach and did not take any risks. That was clearly not the fastest method on the opening stage, but it was the right one.”
Behind, Jari-Matti Latvala trails his team-mate in the sister Polo R WRC, 22.8 seconds back and slowed by a problem with his boot in SS2.
“I don't think I've ever experienced such a difficult start to the 'Monte' as this evening's first stage,” Latvala noted. “It was very difficult to judge the constantly changing levels of grip. You could easily lose minutes there, so I was still quite happy with our time. On stage two, the boot came open from time to time, as the latch was broken. That irritated me a bit. Apart from that, it was a decent start to the Rally Monte Carlo for us.”
M-Sport duo Tanak and Elfyn Evans hold fourth and fifth respectively, the former particularly impressive in SS1 when he posted that second best time, while Evans managed to go P4 in SS2. Tanak is now 2.5s off Latvala overnight and 8.8 seconds up on the sister Fiesta RS WRC.
“I'm very happy with our performance this evening. The first stage [SS1] was more or less full snow and ice. It was very tricky, but we managed to find a good rhythm. We stayed on the road with no mistakes and no moments which was a key factor,” Tanak stated.
“Then for the second stage [SS2] there was more Tarmac but still a lot of icy patches and a lot of gravel had been pulled onto the road. We made a good choice with the tyres, and I enjoyed it as much as I could. I think we've made a really good start to the rally.”
“It's been an incredible start to the rally,” Evans continued. “The first stage [SS1] was worse than expected and we didn't have a great run. The conditions were so tricky and we were conscious of not making a mistake on the first stage. Then the team made a fantastic tyre choice for the second stage [SS2]. We had the correct tyres in the car and that really proved valuable. A big thanks to everybody for what has been a good start to the event for us.”
Kris Meeke rounds out the top six in his Citroen, closely followed by VW Motorsport II pilot Andreas Mikkelsen, 0.1 seconds back and then comes Hyundai's Thierry Neuville and Mads Ostberg. Henning Solberg is tenth.
“It is great to be back in competitive action but what a tough start it has been here,” Neuville commented. “We faced some very demanding conditions in today's stages, so safety was our top priority.
“We had a decent run in the first stage. I am not so used to driving on frozen conditions like that so it required a lot of concentration. The second stage was a bit dangerous so I kept a safe pace so we could make it to the end of the first day. Let's see what tomorrow brings, but for sure we will need to keep focussed at all times if conditions continue like this.”
Dani Sordo had a poor start and went off early in SS1, losing quite a lot of time as his co-driver, Marc Marti had to get out and help push the Hyundai out of a ditch. He ends the leg 12th, one spot behind Martin Prokop.
“I lost a lot of time at the start of the opening stage,” Sordo explained. “Before the first split time, I braked too late in the very slippery conditions and went straight on. Unfortunately, we went into a ditch and so Marc had to push the car out so we could re-join. We lost about thirty seconds of time which was not how we wanted to start. In the second stage, I had studded tyres on, which wasn't the correct choice in the drier conditions. I was also struggling with visibility. However, we have completed the first day and can look to finding some improvements on Friday.”
Former F1 driver Robert Kubica began by posting the 10th fastest time in the opening test, but a spin and electrical problems cost him over 4 minutes in SS2. The Pole later retired on the road section back to service in Gap.
Bryan Bouffier, who led early on last year, before finishing second, also had issues, reporting two moments in SS1, before going off in SS2. Bouffier and co-driver Xavier Panseri both escaped unharmed.
Rallye Monte Carlo now continues on Friday with two loops of three stages on the bill, totalling around 134 competitive kilometres. SS3, the 15.84 km La Salle-Corps 1 test, is due to start at 09.56 hours local time [08.56 hours UK time].
2015 Rallye Monte Carlo: Overall standings after Stage 2 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC 30m 08.2s M
2. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +13.3s M
3. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +36.1s M
4. Ott Tanak M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +38.6s M
5. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +47.4s M
6. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +59.8s M
7. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +59.9s M
8. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +1m 06.8s M
9. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +1m 08.7s M
10. Henning Solberg M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1m 17.6s
11. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1m 18.9s M
12. Dani Sordo Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +1m 24.9s M
13. Stephane Lefebvre PH Sport Citroen DS3 R5 +2m 02.2s WRC2
14. Lorenzo Bertelli FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2m 21.8s M
WRC2 standings after Stage 2 (Top 3):
1. Stephane Lefebvre Citroen DS3 R5 32m 10.4s WRC2
2. Martin Koci Ford Fiesta R5 +22.5s WRC2
3. Quentin Giordano Citroen DS3 R5 +37.3 WRC2
SS1/SS2. Sebastien Chardonnet Citroen DS3 WRC Suspension M*
SS2. Bryan Bouffier M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off
SS2. Robert Kubica RK WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Electrical issues M*
M denotes Manufacturer entry
* denotes will re-start under Rally 2
# Unlike in previous years, crews will be authorised to rejoin under Rally 2 rules at Rallye Monte Carlo but only on the first two days. Any crews that retire during Saturday's leg will not be entitled to rejoin the rally on Sunday.
all times unofficial