The script was already written – Sebastien Loeb, the master of the Monte, would end the first day by comfortably leading his rivals. For a while however, Jari-Matti Latvala seemed determined to turn the rally on its head by setting the script on fire.
The opening stage was by the book – reigning champion Loeb took the stage win, albeit with a determined Dani Sordo snapping at his heels. Mikko Hirvonen backed up his new team-mate in third position to hold off the works Fords of Latvala and Petter Solberg in 4th and 5th.
While stage one was typical dry asphalt, stage two was littered with patches of ice and snow. Loeb and Latvala had both taken a tyre choice of studs and slicks – one of each front and back – but crucially the Finn had taken super-softs to the Frenchman’s soft rubber. The impact was huge – Latvala took a colossal 52 seconds out of the world champion, immediately promoting him to the lead. Team-mate Solberg was equally as impressive – on full slicks he still finished second in the ice and snow of Burzet to St Martial, 24s faster than Loeb.
“We had not tested like this,” said Latvala. “I didn’t know what would happen, I was a little bit worried, but Petter had done something like this in Germany [last year] and he said it would be okay. It was a good decision.”
Sordo was the main loser from the unpredictability of the second stage, hitting a wall and damaging his Mini’s suspension. The big time gaps between drivers ensured he stayed in 4th overall for the time being however. Bryan Bouffier was not so lucky – driving his Peugeot 207 S2000 into a bridge cost him over 5 minutes, after being the inital leader in his class. Thierry Neuville also suffered through no fault of his own, held up by the slow Mini Countryman of Paolo Nobre and leaving him 13th.
The surprise of stage two was swiftly forgotten in the afternoon loop though. Solberg gambled on tyres yet again, but this time it backfired – a pair of snow tyres on a much improved road surface cost him dearly. Meanwhile Hirvonen was being carved to pieces by his world champion team-mate, his woes compounded by clipping a wall and damaging his brakes as a result.
Their problems paled into insignificance compared to Latvala however. The rerun of Burzet to St Martial may have been clearer than earlier that day, but there were still stretches of ice in places. In the end, something as small as half of a single pace note was the difference between leading the Monte Carlo Rally and retiring after rolling his Fiesta off the road. It was as if nothing had changed since years gone by; Just as Latvala looked to be a real contender on pace alone, he binned it and made Loeb’s task all the more easy.
“Miikka called a note about a tightening corner with ice in it,” explained Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson. “Jari was looking for the ice and didn’t register the tightening part of the call. The car slid wide, hit a wall and rolled over it.”
The man to benefit from the assorted mistakes was the same person who suffered during the morning run of the stage – Sordo moved back into second place, albeit just one second ahead of Solberg.
Through all the ups and downs of the opening day, there was another Frenchman who was keen to prove he had the skill to master the jewel in the crown of rallying. Sebastien Ogier is driving an S2000 spec Skoda Fabia this season, and his fast, consistent driving against the more powerful WRC spec cars earned him a solid fourth place at the end of the opening day. Ford may well be ruing letting Ogier slip through their fingers at the end of last season if he can keep this up for the rest of the rally.
Further down the order, Neuville’s woes contiuned, retiring from the final stage of the day. With no superally regulations in effect this week, both he and Latvala will be sitting out the rest of the rally.
Two M-Sport drivers are sandwiching Hirvonen in 6th after the opening four stages – Evgeny Novikov is only 5.4 seconds behind Ogier’s Skoda, and Francois Delecour has done well to stay in touch with his far younger team-mate. A long way back from the Ogier to Delecour group is Pierre Campana, the pay driver in the second Mini. From the off he was unable to live with the pace of the other works cars, and is unsurprisingly lagging behind so far.
Unfortunately the support categories have been stripped to the bone at the start of this season. After the end of day one, out of the few SWRC entrants who turned up to begin with, only two remain. Per-Gunnar Andersson is 10th overall and over three minutes ahead of Craig Breen, who picked up a puncture on the final stage of the day.