Sebastien Loeb became the oldest driver to lead an FIA World Rally Championship round after a sensational return to dominate the 2022 season-opening Monte Carlo Rally on Friday.
As he closes in on his 48th birthday, the Frenchman won four of Friday’s six special stages in the French Alps, ending the first full day of the WRC’s new hybrid era leading by 9.9s in M-Sport Ford’s Puma Rally1.
The Monaco-based event is Loeb’s first WRC outing for more than a year and, currently, a one-off appearance with the British-based squad.
Loeb was second after Thursday night’s two-stage prologue, behind old foe Sebastien Ogier. He charged by his fellow countryman in the last of Friday morning’s three special stages and preserved his advantage in the afternoon, despite a small technical issue.
“The first four stages were really great, then we had a little hybrid problem,” he explained. “In the last stage I made a good drive, but maybe it was freezing a bit more. We had a little bit of ice appearing at the end of the stage, so it was a bit tricky.
“I was really surprised when I was doing the best time in yesterday’s shakedown in the first pass. Usually in shakedown I’m not great, but with this car I was immediately in the rhythm. It’s not a big gap [over Ogier], but I’m happy to be leading after the first full day.”
Ogier dropped to third behind Toyota GR Yaris teammate Elfyn Evans after a cautious approach on frosty roads in this morning’s final stage, but fastest time on the afternoon repeat promoted him back to second.
A wary run in the same test cost Evans valuable seconds. The Welshman ended 12.1s adrift of his colleague after a frustrating day learning the intricacies of driving with the hybrid system for the first time in competition.
Thierry Neuville topped an intense battle for fourth in a Hyundai i20 N. His day improved after an eye-opening first stage in which he described the balance as “a nightmare.” “I’ve never been so scared while driving,” he added.
The Belgian stiffened his car’s settings and ended 8.9s clear of teammate Ott Tanak, with Craig Breen dropping 2.5s behind the Estonian in the final stage in another Puma.
Breen’s teammate Gus Greensmith celebrated his first WRC stage win on the way to an overnight seventh. But for a minor problem with the hybrid system, the Brit would have been snapping at Neuville’s heels.
M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux was fourth overnight, but the Frenchman crashed his Puma down a ravine in the opening test. He and co-driver Alex Coria escaped injury, a testament to the new tube-frame safety cell chassis introduced this year.
Saturday’s action moves west for five stages and 57.45 competitive miles near Digne-les-Bains. Three morning tests precede a tire change in the town before the latter two are repeated. The day features two climbs of the iconic Col de Fontbelle, likely to feature several miles of snow and ice at its summit.
WRC Monte Carlo Rally, leading positions after Day 1, SS8
1 Sebastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) 1h22m49.0s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +9.9s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +22.0s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20N Rally 1) +47.8s
5 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20N Rally 1) +56.7s
6 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +59.2s
7 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m08.4s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m35.9s
9 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m12.8s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20N Rally 1) +2m22.9s
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