Reigning FIA World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier threw down the gauntlet to his rivals on Saturday morning’s opening loop of speed tests at Rallye Monte-Carlo, extending his lead by more than three-quarters-of-a-minute in treacherous conditions.
Stage Info: SS9/10
SS9: Agnières-en-Dévoluy - Corps 1, 29.16km
Set in the heart of the Dévoluy mountains, this test is pacy and mostly downhill on narrow roads that are far from easy. The big difference with last year is a modified second half towards Corps, via Pellafol, but crews will still enjoy superb views of the Sautet dam.
SS10: St Leger les Mélèzes - La-Bâtie Neuve 1, 16.87km
The start has been moved to allow crews to race through Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes, including a spectacular ‘donut’ at the roundabout entering the village. A steep but pacy climb to Col de Moissière (1574 m) negotiates several hairpins exiting the Ancelle ski resort, after which it descends on a narrow and bumpy road which twists and turns through Sapet forest. The final section is wide with a series of long open hairpins to the finish.
Having completed the first full day 14.9sec ahead of his closest pursuer – Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Ott Tänak – Ogier truly turned up the wick on SS9 (Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps) and SS10 (Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes – La Bâtie-Neuve), as overnight snow reduced grip to a premium and left crews gingerly tiptoeing their way through.
The rally leader took more than a minute out of his former team-mate over the 29.16km of SS9, despite damaging the front-left wheel on his Ford Fiesta, before adopting a more cautious approach on SS10 – mindful of his sizeable overall advantage and the fact that he was only carrying one spare tyre. Conceding 15sec to Tänak, the Frenchman returned to the mid-morning service halt in Gap holding a 1min 03.4sec margin over his Estonian adversary.
“Today’s first stage was one of the worst of my career,” Ogier reflected. “It was crazy. There was so much slush, which made it super tricky and we had to drive slow everywhere. I took it even steadier on the next one. So far, so good, but I’m sure the rest of the day will be just as much of a challenge.”
Tänak himself had earlier come under threat from his own team-mate Latvala. Fighting back from an off-colour Friday, the Finn overhauled compatriot Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo – who beached his Hyundai i20 in a ditch on SS9 – for third on the day’s opener, simultaneously closing on Tänak by 34.6sec. The Toyota new boy hit back on SS10, however, posting his third stage win of the rally to re-establish a 37.3sec advantage.
“There was no chance to push on SS9,” said Tänak. “Every time we tried, we immediately found ourselves off-line. SS10 was a lot better, but it seems we had some damper issues.”
Lappi similarly responded on SS10 by outpacing Latvala in the internecine Toyota tussle to narrow the deficit to 25.5sec. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT man Kris Meeke was promoted to fifth by Sordo’s demise, not far ahead of M-Sport Ford pairing Bryan Bouffier and Elfyn Evans.
The recovering Thierry Neuville is up to eighth, with Craig Breen a distant ninth after conceding significant time as the ‘snow plough’ on SS9. Runaway WRC 2 pace-setter Jan Kopecky sits tenth overall in his Skoda Fabia.