The Belgian, on his debut with the Qatar World Rally Team, completed four runs through the 3.58km test, setting the best time of 2m28.7s on his final pass. Defending champion Sebastien Loeb was second fastest, setting a time of 2m28.7s in his Citroen DS3 WRC, with Ford Fiesta WRC driver Evgeny Novikov third in a time of 2m28.8s.
Based close to Valence city, the stage was not very representative of the twisty mountain roads the crews will face in the coming days, however 4cm of snow overnight enabled the crews to get used to the expected wintry conditions.
Volkswagen driver Jari-Matti Latvala was one of the first to drive through. “For our first run the stage was completely covered with packed snow. Not ice as such, but hard packed and very slippy,” he said. “There were already a couple of tracks on the road where people had gone off ahead of me. Soon after I had a small moment myself when I stalled under braking and went straight on at a junction.”
“We started on the studded snow tyre option. On the corners it was fine, but under braking it’s difficult because the slush blocks the tyre tread and we kept locking up. If the weather stays like this I’m expecting a very difficult Monte-Carlo.”
Neuville, who used the non-studded winter tyre option for the whole session, was happy to be fastest but warned about reading too much into the performance.
“So much depends on the road conditions,” he told wrc.com. “We had a great couple of runs at the end when the road was quite clean. The snow was only patchy at that point and the road quite clean. I had good confidence and could try to drive hard and see the limits of the car.”
“But it’s not always the fastest driver who wins this rally, almost never in fact. We just need to be careful – especially during tomorrow’s first day, which I expect will be very complicated. My objective remains to stay on the road and get the car all the way to Monaco.”
Here are the times of the top 10 drivers:
1. Neuville. Ford Fiesta RS WRC. 2:28.1
2. Loeb. Citroen DS3 WRC. 2:28.7
3. Novikov. Ford Fiesta RS WRC. 2:28.8
4. Hirvonen. Citroen DS3 WRC. 2:29.4
5. Latvala. Volkswagen Polo WRC. 2:30.4
6. Ogier. Volkswagen Polo WRC. 2:30.5
7. Sordo. Citroen DS3 WRC. 2:31.8
8. Ostberg. Ford Fiesta RS WRC. 2:32.9
9. Kostka. Skoda Fabia S2000. 2:37.4
10. Wiegand. Skoda Fabia S2000. 2:37.5