Friday saw the first full day of the FIA World Rally Championship begin in earnest, the much anticipated snow notable only by its absence and the promised sleet instead making way for drizzling, driving rain. It worsened as Friday wore on and served to make the stages deceptively greasy, a trait compounded by the increase in detritus on the road surface itself. The stages in question totalled 150km, with Vitrolles – Oze kicking starting the action, followed by Roussieux – Eygalayes (the longest stage of the day 33.63km) and Vaumeilh – Claret.
Sébastien Ogier went into Vitrolles – Oze with a handy lead and emerged having increased it to a full half a minute, the reigning champion’s cause aided immeasurably by Andreas Mikkelsen falling to third due to over-shooting a junction. It would be the final play for the Norwegian on this year’s Rallye Monte-Carlo, as alternator issues rendered his i20 inoperable and unable to start the second and longest stage of the loop, Roussieux – Eygalayes.
His team-mate’s misfortune promoted Dani Sordo to the runner up spot, just ahead of the lead Toyota Yaris of Ott Tanak. It wasn’t to remain this way for very long though, with Sordo unable to live with the revitalized Estonian and his newfound pace, and he swiftly ceded the position on SS5.
Clearly in imperious form, Tanak was fastest through SS3 and only marginally slower in SS4 and SS5, form which saw him complete the loop with a 7.1 second buffer to Sordo and a 40-second deficit to Ogier.
Esapekka Lappi‘s surprisingly strong showing on the snow-free asphalt stages continued, though he had no answer to the pace of Tanak was forced to surrender the position to his new team mate at the start of the day. He ended the morning sandwiched between Sordo and the looming presence of his other team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, a scant 17.1 seconds behind in fifth.
The morning’s running brought yet more pain for both Craig Breen and Thierry Neuville. The former was unable to truly commit to the stages thanks to damage to his brakes; a rock wedged itself between the bleed nipple and the inner edge of the alloy, the kind of incident which could only ever happen in rallying and one which caused him to lose both rear brakes midway through SS4! Neuville’s charge back up the order was initially hampered by the need to change a puncture picked up on Vitrolles – Oze, though top 3 times in both the following stages saw him climb to tenth by the end of the loop, 25 seconds behind the similarly improving Elfyn Evans.
The afternoon’s running brought a change in the weather, with damper, darker conditions, dirtier lines and pebble-strewn braking points all confirming the Michelin super soft tyre as the rubber of choice. Not that the decrease in grip bothered Tanak – the Estonian was 6.5 seconds faster than anyone else on the second run through Vitrolles – Oze, cutting the gap to Ogier to 33 seconds and pulling away from Sordo at a canter.
The second run through Roussieux – Eygalayes brought even more rain (though not so much as to warrant a change in tyre compound), much of it standing in treacherous puddles on the inside of otherwise benign looking corners. It was slippery enough catch out Ogier, the champ oversteering into a ditch on the exit of a hairpin and shedding a solid 25 seconds, giving Tanak further cause for optimism. Ogier then tiptoed through SS8 to retain control of the Monte at the close of the day, but the gap between the former team mates is now just under 15 seconds.
Stability was the story of the day for much of the midfield; Sordo tightened his grip on third place by pulling away from Lappi, the young Finn sliding back into the clutches of his older team-mate and de-facto team leader, Latvala. Latvala ended Friday in fifth, 0.2 seconds behind Lappi but over a minute and a half ahead of sixth placed Kris Meeke, the Dungannon man the best placed Citroen runner at this point in the rally.
Away from the tit-for-tat fight for first between Ogier and Tanak, much of the action was reserved for the lower reaches of the top 10, where Neuville and Evans staged their own, afternoon long skirmish. Evans drew first blood by setting the fastest time through SS7 (19:03.5), a scant second quicker than his Belgian rival. Neuville repaid the favour on the very next stage though, mastering the slippy ‘black top’ of Vaumeilh – Claret to come home fastest of all with an 8:36.2. The pair remain closely matched at the end of Friday, the Welshman just 25.9 seconds to the good, hardly a comfortable bulwark considering how much stage mileage remains.
Keen not to be outdone, WRC2 served up an incredibly frenetic day of action, starting when Kalle Rovenpera went wide on a left-hand bend and came within inches of sliding down the bank and into a post. Teemu Suninen wasn’t so lucky – his Fiesta R5 left the road midway through the first run through Roussieux – Eygalayes and all but disappeared into the woods! This set the tone for the rest of the day, with erstwhile leader Eric Camilli forced right down the order thanks to another, even more permanent trip into the scenery. It means Jan Kopecký leads WRC2 by a massive 8:28.7 from Guillaume de Mevius, with Kevin Abbring just over half a minute further back in third.
WRC Standings After SS8
1 Sébastien Ogier Ford Fiesta WRC 2:07:15.4 2 Ott Tanak Toyota Yaris WRC 2:07:30.3 3 Dani Sordo Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 2:08:15.1 4 Esapekka Lappi Toyota Yaris WRC 2:08:25.3 5 Jari-Matti Latvala Toyota Yaris WRC 2:08:25.5 6 Kris Meeke Citroen C3 WRC 2:10:00.9 7 Bryan Bouffier Ford Fiesta WRC 2:10:50.0 8 Elfyn Evans Ford Fiesta WRC 2:11:17.1 9 Thierry Neuville Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 2:11:19.5 10 Craig Breen Citroen C3 WRC 2:12:22.0 RET Andreas Mikkelsen Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC ---------
WRC2 Standings After SS8
1 Jan Kopecky Skoda Fabia R5 2:15:27.2 2 Guillaume de Mevius Peugeot 208T16 2:23:55.9 3 Kevin Abbring Ford Fiesta R5 2:24:26.7 4 Eddie Sciessere Citroen DS3 R5 2:28:03 5 Eric Camilli Ford Fiesta R5 2:36:15.2 6 Teemu Suninen Ford Fiesta R5 2:50:41.3
WRC3 Standings After SS8
1 Jean-Baptiste Franceschi Ford Fiesta R2T 2:30:20.8 2 Taisko Lario Peugeot 208 R2 2:34:31.7 3 Enrico Brazzoli Peugeot 208 R2 2:41:04.6 4 Amaury Molle Peugeot 208 R2 2:50:34.3
RGT Cup Standings After SS8
1 Nicolas Ciamin Fiat 124 Abarth Rally RGT 2:40:49.3 2 Andrea Nucita Fiat 124 Abarth Rally RGT 2:49:42.9