Juho Hanninen has given the brand new Skoda Fabia Super 2000 the perfect debut by taking the lead on the Rallye Monte Carlo today [Wednesday], the opening round in the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge.

The 26-year-old, who finished runner-up in last year's FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, confirmed the excellent reliability of the Fabia seen in pre-season testing.

He made the correct tyre choices all day in mixed conditions to end the opening three stages 11.9 seconds ahead of Stephane Sarrazin in the factory Peugeot 207 S2000. Even more impressively, Hanninen is the only one of the top three not to have contested the legendary Monte before.

"I'm very, very pleased with the way that things have gone today: I would honestly have not expected to be in the lead," said the Finn. "If I have managed it, this is also thanks to our gravel crew who have done an excellent job, so I would like to thank them especially.

"Even though the conditions have been very mixed, their information gave me the confidence to put the power down even where there was some snow, as I knew that I would have grip.

"I was deliberately trying to stay safe today and not choose any radical options with tyres and settings, and it seems that this is the way forward. But tomorrow is a different day, so let's see what it will bring. Certainly this is the best possible way to start my career with Skoda!"

Sarrazin meanwhile, who is usually a star of Peugeot's Le Mans programme, enjoyed a different type of challenge, winning the second stage of the rally by an impressive 13 seconds. This enabled him to climb up to second place: a position he maintained until the end of the day.

"I'm happy but today has been even more difficult than my previous experience of the Monte Carlo Rally," said the ex-Subaru World Rally Team man. "The first stage was a really big wake-up call for us; we were on slick tyres and I nearly went off on every corner. For the second stage we had the perfect choice, and it went much better; the last stage was good for us too.

"The main thing is that we are still firmly in the fight for the lead and there is a long way to go. I think the stages tomorrow should be drier so hopefully it will be a bit easier then, but the thing about Monte Carlo is that it is completely unpredictable and that is something we have already seen today."

In third after the first three tests is reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz, who won the opening stage near Monaco. The Peugeot Belgium driver also steered clear of problems to end up firmly in touch with the battle for the lead.

"We had no real problems although it's been a tiring day," said Vouilloz. "On the third stage we hit a rock slightly and that gave us a slow puncture at the front-right, meaning that the car understeered more as the stage went on.

"The easiest stage today was probably the second one; the others were extremely tough. Once more though we've got a reliable car and we've also had some good information from our gravel crews and tyre engineers. To be on the provisional podium is a good start; now we have to try and continue in this way."

Sebastien Ogier, who is competing under the BFGoodrich Drivers' Team banner, came in fourth in his Kronos-run Peugeot 207 S2000, 15.4 seconds off third and 5.3 seconds up on Freddy Loix in fifth.

"It's been a tough day but the end result is positive," said the Frenchman. "My first day in the 207 Super 2000 was marked by extremely treacherous conditions. On top of that, I picked up a slow puncture on the last stage after clipping a rock about 10km after the start. That must have cost me around 20 seconds, but I was a little fortunate because the end of SS3 was snowy."

Britain's Kris Meeke completes the top six, the Irishman gaining two places in the final stage, when he was quickest in his Peugeot UK-entered 207 S2000.

"What an incredible day that was! I don't think dry weather tyres were the best option for the first two stages, and I was glad to get through them unscathed. I wanted to put in a good run on the last stage and I was delighted to learn that I had scored the fastest time," he said.

Further down the order, Abarth's Giandomenico Basso and Toni Gardemeister rounded out the top eight, the latter running third early on in his Fiat Grande Punto S2000 until transmission problems dropped him back.

Of the rest Mitsubishi driver Franz Wittmann was ninth, followed by Jan Kopecky, who struggled with power steering problems in the second works Skoda Fabia S2000, and then Olivier Burri and Anton Alen.

In terms of retirements a number of drivers' were caught out, most noticeably Luca Rossetti and 1994 World Rally champion, Didier Auriol. Both Rossetti and Auriol hit problems within metres of each other at the start of the very first icy opening test.

The action now continues on Thursday and sees the crews complete a total of six stages, making up 145.78 competitive kilometres.

The day starts at 08:15, followed by a loop of three stages that includes the famous 25.30-kilometre St Bonnet le Froid test to the north-west of Valence. The cars then return for a 20-minute service at the Polygone in Valence at 13:28. This service halt is followed by a repeat of the morning's three stages. The cars return to service at Valence for the second time at 18:26, before entering parc ferme at 19:11 [all times local].



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