French manufacturer Citroen has grabbed the headlines for good and bad reasons on the first round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, the Rallye Monte Carlo, which started from the Principality today.
The team's young driver Sebastien Loeb backed up the form that took him to second overall in Sanremo last year to move into the overall rally lead on the day's fourth stage. But there was disappointment for his team-mates Thomas Radstrom and Philippe Bugalski: neither got to tackle a single stage, after they both succumbed to engine failures on the road section to this morning's service in Digne les Bains.
Loeb's ended today's final test with more than 30sec advantage over the Rallye Monte Carlo winner for the last three years, Tommi Mäkinen. The four-times world champion survived a spin in the longest stage of the day to hold second on his first drive in a Subaru Impreza, and other fancied runners like Colin McRae, Petter Solberg, Marcus Grönholm and Carlos Sainz remain in touch.
Others hit trouble in the fickle Monte conditions - Gilles Panizzi picked up penalties after hydraulic problems, while Hyundai drivers Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix both set encouraging times this morning, only to retire by early afternoon. Loix crashed heavily, sustaining a badly bruised foot, while Schwarz slid off on SS4 and retired with broken suspension.
Citroen lost two of its Xsara WRCs before they even managed to reach this morning's opening service. Thomas Radstrom's example retired about 10km out of Monaco, while Philippe Bugalski travelled a further 60km before his Xsara stopped on the road section. Both cars suffered engine failures that are suspected to relate to the engine block itself. The problem is similar to the one that halted Sebastien Loeb's car at shakedown yesterday, but as a result the young Frenchman's car was fitted with an older-spec engine whose block came from an earlier batch. His car ran without problems today.
Thomas Radstrom and Philippe Bugalski were both halted by engine failures on the road section from Monaco to Digne les Bains this morning, and neither managed to drive a single kilometre in anger. Team-mate Sebastien Loeb did, and the young Frenchman put thoughts of a similar problem (and the fact that he now shoulders the team's hopes) to the back of his mind to grab the lead with a very fast time on the day's longest stage.
Sebastien Loeb said: ''This morning I just wanted not to make any mistakes, after seeing what happened to Philippe and Thomas. But this afternoon I pushed quite hard in the dry conditions, then concentrated on driving neatly in the snow. There's a long way to go but my engine block is from an older batch so I don't think I will have the same problem as the others.''
His team-mate Philippe Bugalski added: ''I couldn't believe it. Obviously I saw Thomas parked up and then after a few more kilometres, I heard a bad noise and the engine stopped. I can't understand why it happened but it looks like exactly the same problem as Thomas. I'm very disappointed, of course, but we just have to recover, find out why we've had this problem and learn from that.''
At Subaru neither Tommi Mäkinen or Petter Solberg had any major technical problems with their Impreza WRC2001s today. Mäkinen's only glitch was a slow puncture on the day's longest test (SS4).