FIA World Rally Championship drivers are a breed apart, a tough bunch not known for being easily phased by the task at hand, making their collective sense of trepidation in the run up to the beginning of the Rallye Monte-Carlo all the more unique. The pair of stages run in the in the mid-winter darkness of a Monegasque January gave no room for error and nowhere to hide; Thoard – Sisteron (36.69km) run at 21:43, and Bayons-Breziers (25.49km) run at 22:51. Make no mistake, these are tricky stages at the best of times, and that’s before we factor in those other 2 variables – the darkness and the weather.
Sisteron was made more treacherous for being run in reverse format for the first time and for the whole field opting to tackle it on slicks. Largely dry at the bottom but liberally scattered with snow and sheet ice at the top of the col, Sisteron proved to be something of a monster, an old school relic in terms of character and sternness of test – and you thought your first day back at work on 2 January was a struggle!
Sébastien Ogier was his usual, disconcertingly brilliant self, and was comfortably the fastest through despite a spin midway on a tightening right-hander. The Frenchman made pirouetting backwards down an incline in the pitch dark look positively everyday, and was one of few drivers to emerge from Sisteron (relatively) unscathed. Andreas Mikkelsen, Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo were also able to thread their way through and were rewarded with second, third and fourth fastest times as a result, with the young Finn’s tarmac pace serving to raise more than a few eyebrows. Sordo was able to overhaul Lappi on the largely dry Bayons-Breziers though, meaning the top 3 overnight comprised Ogier (extending his lead thanks to another fastest stage time), Mikkelsen and Sordo, with Lappi 11.8 seconds further back.
Ireland’s Craig Breen was fifth quickest through SS1 and at times looked spellbindingly fast, though a minor off saw him drop back to seventh overall. It was a situation compounded for him having to complete the run on less than ideal tyre pressures, with the resulting exacerbated tyre wear leading to a dramatic reduction in grip. Breen’s loss was very much Toyota’s gain, with Tanak recovering from a bank related mishap in SS1 to end the evening in fifth place, 5 seconds behind Lappi and 13 ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala, the latter also recovering from a Sisteron indiscretion.
Kris Meeke‘s now customary Monte Carlo blues returned once more, this time in the form of a costly spin, again on Sisteron. It was made far worse for then reversing into a ditch and shedding a good two minutes, meaning it was a visibly frustrated Meeke who arrived at the end of the second stage, Bayons-Breziers. He ended the evening in ninth overall, over 2 minutes off the leader and 21.7 seconds behind the man in eighth, M-Sport’s Bryan Bouffier.
Meeke’s issues were small beer compared to those of Thierry Neuville however, with the Belgian sliding off the road on one of Sisteron’s icy sections and into a snow-covered bank. This was hardly a unique scenario even amongst the ranks of the WRC’s elite, yet the error was rendered all the costlier for occurring in an area short of spectators to haul him out. He lost over 4 minutes and plummeted down the order, with even second fastest time through the following stage only good enough for 17th overall.
Neuville was far from alone in his Sisteron-suffering, and he was joined at the ‘wrong’ end of the leaderboard by a frustrated Elfyn Evans. The Welshman’s obvious pace was blunted by a puncture on SS1 and throttle response gremlins on SS2, issues which meant he went to bed an unhappy 16thoverall, just ahead of Neuville.
The chaos of the opening stages meant that a number of plucky WRC2 crews found themselves further up the leaderboard than they otherwise might have been, with M-Sport’s Eric Camilli leading the charge in 10th. He actually dropped down from ninth thanks to Meeke’s thunderous run through the second stage, but remains over 19 seconds ahead of the Skoda of Jan Kopecký in eleventh. The Hyundai i20 of Stéphane Sarrazin currently holds 12th, a scant 2 seconds ahead of Ole Christian Veiby‘s Fabia, with Teemu Suninen‘s Red Bull-backed Fiesta just 3 seconds further back in 14th.
WRC standings after SS2
1 Sebastian Ogier Ford Fiesta WRC 38:09.8 2 Andreas Mikkelsen Hyundai i20 WRC 38:27.1 3 Dani Sordo Hyundai i20 WRC 38:35.4 4 Esapekka Lappi Toyota Yaris WRC 38:47.2 5 Ott Tanak Toyota Yaris WRC 38:52.2 6 Jari-Matti Latvala Toyota Yaris WRC 39:05.2 7 Craig Breen Citroen C3 WRC 39:12.1 8 Bryan Bouffier Ford Fiesta WRC 40:00.8 9 Kris Meeke Citroen C3 WRC 40:22.5 16 Elfyn Evans Ford Fiesta WRC 42:22.7 17 Thierry Neuville Hyundai i20 WRC 42:28.0
WRC2 standings after SS2
1 Eric Camilli Ford Fiesta R5 40:52.0 2 Jan Kopecky Skoda Fabia R5 41:11.1 3 Teemu Suninen Ford Fiesta R5 41:30.9 4 Guillaume de Mevius Peugeot 208T16 43:53.9 5 Eddie Sciessere Citroen DS3 R5 44:41.9 6 Kevin Abbring Ford Fiesta R5 48:11.5
WRC3 standings after SS2
1 J Franceschi Ford Fiesta R2T 46:36.4 2 Taisko Lario Peugeot 208 R2 47:30.6 3 Enrico Brazzoli Peugeot 208 R2 50:33.5 4 Amaury Molle Peugeot 208 R2 53:09.1
RGT Cup standings after SS2
1 Andrea Nucita Fiat 124 Abarth Rally RGT 46:11.2 2 Nicolas Ciamin Fiat 124 Abarth Rally RGT 53:26.9