Kris Meeke dominated Friday’s opening leg to lead the Che Guevara Energy Drink Tour de Corse after winning three of the four mountain road speed tests.
World champion Sébastien Ogier fought hard to contain the Briton and ended 10.3sec behind after winning the other test. Nobody came close to matching the top two and Thierry Neuville finished 25.8sec off the lead in third.
Corsica was in benign mood. Unpredictable weather usually makes rain a constant threat, but sun and temperatures touching 20°C kept a smile on drivers’ faces and ensured tyre choice was straight-forward.
Meeke was apprehensive ahead of this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. His Citroën C3 performed badly on wintery asphalt at the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo but was transformed on the Mediterranean island’s sealed surface roads.
He won both morning tests on the east coast near Ajaccio before Ogier prevented a hat-trick with fastest time when the opener was repeated. Meeke ended with a third win but acknowledged the danger Ogier poses.
“They were two tough stages this afternoon with a lot of road pollution but I enjoyed them. We’re always wary of Seb as he never gives up but I’m comfortable with my pace,” said Meeke, who belatedly kick-started his season with victory in Mexico last month.
Ogier was never truly comfortable with his Ford Fiesta’s handling in bumpy sections. Set-up changes improved his feeling but the Frenchman promised there was more to come.
“We’ve improved the car during the day and step-by-step the feeling is getting a bit better. We’re not far off and I have some more ideas for tomorrow,” he said.
Neuville was third in every stage in his Hyundai i20 but the Belgian was perplexed his times did not match the good feeling he had in the car. “I’m running for my life. We’re driving on the edge everywhere, sometimes over the limit, but can’t touch the guys ahead,” he said.
Craig Breen overhauled Dani Sordo in the final test to hold fourth in his C3 by 1.4sec. Sordo was also at a loss to explain his lack of pace but was 6.4sec ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala’s Toyota Yaris. Finn Latvala was unhappy with his driving throughout the day.
Hayden Paddon was disappointed with seventh, his cause not helped when he slid his i20 into a rock. Stéphane Lefebvre, WRC 2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen and Stephane Sarrazin completed the leaderboard.
Elfyn Evans was more than six minutes off the pace after hydraulic problems rendered his Fiesta’s centre differential and paddle shift gear change unusable for much of the day. Team-mate Ott Tänak retired from fourth after crashing into a ditch and Juho Hänninen went out after hitting a bridge and damaging his steering.
Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format of two repeated stages, this time on mountain roads closer to Bastia. The four tests cover 131.96km.