Elfyn Evans holds a narrow lead after day one of Rally Monza, but Sebastien Ogier is still on course for an eighth FIA World Rally Championship title after an intense duel between the Toyota teammates left them separated by just 1.4s.
Seven-time and reigning champ Ogier came into the WRC finale with a 17-point lead over Evans. With a maximum of 30 available in Italy, Welshman Evans knows his best chance of overhauling Ogier is to go all out for the win and hope that the 37-year-old Frenchman has an all-too-rare off weekend.
That looked unlikely during the morning loop of four special stages in the Bergamesque Alps, north of Milan. Evans edged his fellow Yaris WRC driver by 0.1s on the second stage, but Ogier was fastest on the other three, taking a 6.5s lead into the three stages at the iconic Monza F1 track that would complete the day.
That’s when the momentum began to shift. Fastest for Evans on the special stage 5, Cinturato 1, plus braking issues for Ogier — “basically, the car stayed on the brakes the whole stage,” he noted — left Evans just 0.8s off the lead.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was fastest through special stage 6, Cinturato 2, but Evans’ second-quickest time was a full 2.1s better than Ogier’s run, putting him in the overall lead by 1.3s.
In the day’s final stage, a 6.39-mile blast in the dark that used much of the F1 track, as well as Monza’s historic banking and some deceptively tricky gravel service roads, Evans was only third quickest but, crucially, 0.1s faster than Ogier to end the day with that 1.4s lead.
Still, with Ogier looking relatively comfortable in second overall and way ahead of the fight for third, the title momentum remains with the reigning champ. But Evans knows he’s doing everything he can to keep his chances alive.
“Today’s been OK,” said Evans. “The last stage wasn’t so nice, coming into the chicanes on cold tires in the dark. Overall, it was a good performance at the track, so I’m quite happy with that, but we’ve got some work to do for the mountain stages tomorrow.”
After the intensity of the day one duel, Ogier didn’t sound like a driver who’d be taking maximum risk on day two’s six special stages and 67.56 competitive miles. Nevertheless, he knows there’s a long way to go and no room for complacency as he seeks to end his full-time WRC driving career with an eight title in nine years.
“I can be happy with this day,” said the WRC legend, who has chosen to compete on only selected events in 2022. “It was a good drive this morning in the mountains, followed by some small problems this afternoon, so let’s see what is our level tomorrow.”
Some way behind the all-Toyota Gazoo Racing battle raging at the top of the time sheets, factory Hyundai duo Neuville and Dani Sordo were having their own intra-team duel for the final podium place. Adding to Neuville’s penultimate stage win, Sordo grabbed fastest time on the final stage in his i20 WRC Coupe, with the pair separated by just 3s at day’s end. But with a 20.2s gap from Ogier to third-placed Neuville, it’s unlikely that either will insert themselves in the fight for the overall lead.
“I’m satisfied with our performance inside the car, but we struggled with finding performance from the car itself,” said a perplexed Neuville, who came to Monza after a dominant victory last time out on the asphalt of Rally Spain. “The feeling is there, so it’s difficult to know where more speed can come from.”
Oliver Solberg is fifth overall in a satellite 2C Competition Hyundai, putting in a solid day of experience-building for his promotion to a part-time factory seat in 2022. The 20-year-old holds a 14.9s lead over Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta, who impressed on the Monza stages and narrowly missed out on fastest time in the day’s final test.
Gus Greensmith is seventh in M-Sport’s remaining Fiesta WRC after teammate Adrien Fourmaux rolled out on special stage 3, with Teemu Suninen eighth in the third factory Hyundai.
Suninen was a late replacement for Ott Tanak, who misses Monza for family reasons, and is still playing catch-up on learning the car. Nevertheless, he’s the highest-placed Finn, thanks to Kalle Rovanpera cruising to a subdued ninth as he plays the insurance role in Toyota’s quest for the manufacturers’ title — something of a formality, given that a seventh-place finish by any of the factory Yaris WRCs would seal the deal.
In the battle for WRC2 honors, newly crowned champion Andreas Mikkelsen is in fightback mode after suffering a puncture on a gravel section of the second Monza stage. The Toksport WRT Skoda driver lies 1m34.7s behind class leader and teammate Marco Bulacia, but isn’t giving up on closing down the gap in day two’s mountain stages.
“It’s been a little bit up and down,” said Mikkelsen. “Mostly a good day, but the puncture was a real shame. I don’t even know how it happened, because we definitely didn’t hit anything. We’ll keep pushing and see what can happen.”
After four morning stages in the Bergamesque Alps, Saturday’s second leg concludes with two more track-based stages at Monza. With everything still to play for in the battle for the overall WRC drivers’ title, it promises to be one of the most crucial days of the season.
WRC Rally Monza, leading positions after Day One, SS7
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC) 1h04m05.2s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1.4s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +21.6s
4 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +24.6s
5 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +50.6s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m05.5s
7 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m14.1s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m28.6s
9 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Haltunnen (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m57.3s
10 Yohan Rossel/Jacques-Julien Renucci (Citroen C3) +4m21.3s
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