There have doubtless been more visually spectacular Rallye Monte-Carlo than the 2018 edition, Montes with near constant snow, unruly masses of spectators and bigger entry lists, but that misses the point somewhat. Indeed, the FIA World Rally Championship’s annual visit to the foothills of the alps was so fascinating this year because of the relative lack of snow, with much of it restricted to the upper reaches of Saturday morning’s loop. It meant that the traditional Monte-Carlo tyre lottery was even tricker to call correctly than usual, and ensured the rally claimed a number of high profile scalps before Friday morning had even begun.
The mixture of stages on this years Rallye Monte-Carlo included a number of classic tests, plus some well known from recent championship trips to the South of France. Thursday began with a run through the 36.6km of Sisteron and the 25.4km of Bayons-Breziers, before giving way to Friday’s 150km of competitive mileage; Vitrolles – Oze, followed by Roussieux – Eygalayes (33.63km) and Vaumeilh – Claret. Saturday saw the crews tackling the snowiest stages of the rally, Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps and Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes, and another run through Bayons-Breziers. The 67.7km that made up Sunday’s running were largely dry and, bar a smattering of frost at the top of the Col de Turini, provided ample levels of grip; La Bollène-Vésubie – Peïra-Cava and La Cabanette – Col de Braus.
The chaos of Thursday night will live long in the memories of all who witnessed it, not to mention the drivers who came a cropper during it! A blast through Sisteron and another Bayons-Breziers wouldn’t normally have troubled the WRC’s elite, but this year’s decision to run the former in reverse for the first time, coupled wth liberal quantities of slush, black ice and ‘black top,’ turned what could’ve been a pedestrian start to the 2018 championship into a battle for survival. It saw Thierry Neuville, Kris Meeke, Elfyn Evans and Craig Breen all shed time, the Belgian coming off worst thanks to a costly trip into the snow on an area largely devoid of spectators.
Sisteron’s deceptively tricky nature caught out many of the world’s greatest drivers, with the M-Sport pairing of Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans both struggling. The reigning champion made a rare error, going wide on an especially snowy hairpin and finding his Fiesta sliding backwards down the stage. He kept his cool, corrected the issue and powered on to set the fastest time through the stage, but it was a clear demonstration of the Monte’s fickle nature. Evans picked up a costly puncture which left the Welshman playing catch-up for the rest of the weekend, though a number of fastest times served to remind the world of his increasing confidence and ability on tarmac.
M-Sport’s charge was aided by Bryan Bouffier, a French tarmac ace who claimed second overall on the Monte 4 years ago. Bouffier’s run this year was hampered by being forced to change co-drivers at the last minute (after the final recce!), and his run to eighth overall was somewhat subdued as a result.
Toyota’s newbie Ott Tanak survived his own Thursday night dramas to emerge as the closest competition to Ogier. In fact the battle between the two former team mate’s was something of a classic, the gap between them ebbing and flowing as the rally progressed. Ogier’s costly slide into a ditch on Friday afternoon was countered by a stunning run (albeit one aided by running down the order) through the opening stage of Saturday morning, Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps. Tanak showed a newfound confidence however, fighting back to chip away at Ogier’s lead as Saturday progressed to lie just over half a minute behind him at the end of the day. Only a renewed push from the Frenchman on Sunday morning, coupled with Tanak’s desire to bank points, put victory beyond doubt.
Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi spent much of the rally in third and fourth, benefitting from the misfortune of Neuville and Evans, not to mention the patchy pace of both the Citroen C3s. The former completed a solid if somewhat anonymous drive to the bottom step of the podium, while Lappi’s stunningly mature drive was somewhat tainted by a costly error on the Power Stage. The young Finn went off the road near to the end of the stage and shed half a minute, dropping him from fourth to seventh in the blink of an eye.
Kris Meeke was one of the drivers to benefit from Lappi’s costly error, though the Northern Irishman was on something of a charge at the time, having finally found a setup on the C3 WRC well suited to the Monte. His run through the Power Stage to collect the maximum haul of 5 bonus points (relieving Lappi of fourth in the process) was just fillip Meeke needed, after having spent much of the event bumbling around the middle of the table thanks to his own Sisteron dramas.
The other C3 WRC of Craig Breen also struggled, a mixture of shockingly poor fortune and disadvantageous road position neutering his ability to fight for strong points. The most serious damage was done on Friday morning when an errant stone damaged the C3’s brakes, forcing Breen to coast through the remaining stage mileage. Any hopes of a gallant charge back up the order were (literally) put on ice come Saturday, when Breen found himself first through both Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps and Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes and reduced to the role of snow plough.
This will not be a well-remembered Monte for all the teams however, with Hyundai probably feeling especially aggrieved. The Korean concern’s hopes of victory were dashed one-by-one, with all three of its drivers falling foul of this famously unpredictable event. Thierry Neuville lost over 4 minutes on Thursday night but was on spellbinding form thereafter, setting numerous stage times to haul himself to fifth overall by the end of Sunday. Andreas Mikkelsen picked his way through Thursday night to set himself up for an assault on the top 3, only to have his alternator fail on Friday and force him into the clutches of Rally 2. Dani Sordo was lying in third on Saturday morning but slid out on Agnières-en-Dévoluy, coming to rest at the foot of an especially deep ditch – and incurring the displeasure of his team as a result.
Not to be outdone, those in WRC2 rose to the occasion and provided some suitably dramatic action, even if many of the crews found came a cropper on the ice at one point or another. Eric Camilli and Teemu Suninen both left the road at one point or another, with the M-Sport-supported Frenchman ultimately retiring due to mechanical damage. Suninen’s off-stage exclusion was even more dramatic, the Finn leaving the road and coming to rest in a shallow, fast running stream.
The high rate of attrition outlined above, paired with Kevin Abbring’s retirement from a damaged radiator on SS10, served to take some of the sting out of the battle itself, with Jan Kopecký pulling out a clear lead from the Peugeot of Guillaume de Mevius. Kopecký managed his lead from then on, and eventually won by a massive 22:47! De Mevius was later to have a full 19 minutes added to his time at the behest of the stewards.
The battle in WRC3 was just as one sided, Enrico Brazzoli eventually coming home to win from Amaury Molle by over 22 minutes. Brazzoli’s inherited the lead from Jean-Baptiste Franceschi when the Frenchman went off the road on SS11 and retired his Fiesta R2, and from then on could afford to cruise to an assured victory.
The WRC remains with the snowy theme for its next round, Rally Sweden. The championship’s only full snow rally takes place between 1fifth and the 1eighth of February, and we’ll be keeping you up to date with full coverage.
1 – Sébastien Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC – 26
2 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC – 18
3 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC – 17
4 – Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC – 17
5 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC – 14
6 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC –8
7 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC – 6
8 – Bryan Bouffier – Ford Fiesta WRC – 4
9 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC – 3
10 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC – 2
1 – M-Sport Ford World Rally Team – 33
2 – Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 33
3 – Citroen WRT – 18
4 – Hyundai Motorsport – 14