Sebastien Ogier pulled out all the stops on Thursday evening’s opening leg of the Monte Carlo Rally to end a spectacular opening night of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship season with a useful advantage.
Ogier, an eight-time winner in the French Alps, was in a league of his own as he blasted his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 to fastest times on both of the opening stages, heading teammate Elfyn Evans by 6.0s after 24.87 miles of competition.
An uncharacteristically dry start to the WRC’s most historic event heightened the importance of tire management, with several drivers overheating their rubber on the winding mountain passes around the famed Col de Turini.
Ogier, however, remained unfazed and – for once – was delighted not to be first car onto the stages. Because of running only a limited program in 2022 and finishing sixth in final points, the French legend started sixth on the road for the 2023 opener, which played to his advantage as he could pick out any tricky sections by spotting the tire tracks of those ahead of him.
“It’s never easy to start this rally at night, but at least the conditions were not so inconsistent,” said Ogier, who will again run only selected events in 2023. “There was only one really tricky corner and for once I was not starting first on the road, so I could benefit from seeing the lines from the others. That helped me.
“I think it’s been a good start for us and we are happy with that, but obviously there is a very long way to go.”
Ott Tanak completes the leading trio, 9.4s adrift of second-placed Evans. But it was a troublesome night for the Estonian as he kicked off his debut aboard one of M-Sport’s Ford Pumas. An electrical issue on the liaison section prior to SS1 did nothing to calm the 2019 WRC champ’s nerves, and those tensions were only raised as he completed both stages without fifth gear.
Just 0.1s behind is Hyundai star Thierry Neuville, who dropped around 8.0s by stalling his i20 N Rally1 after sliding wide on a patch of black ice. Puma privateer Jourdan Serderidis fell foul to the very same corner, but fared much worse, losing over a minute as spectators extracted his car from a ditch.
Reigning WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera had to tweak his driving style to keep the soft compound tires on the front of his GR Yaris from overheating. The Finn is currently sandwiched by Hyundai cars in sixth overall, 1.6s adrift of Neuville, with Dani Sordo’s i20 N 15.0s behind him.
Seventh-placed Pierre-Louis Loubet adopted a cautious approach to his first day as a full-time M-Sport Ford driver, finishing 40.3s off the overall lead. The same could be said for Esapekka Lappi, who’s just 1.1s behind Loubet on his first event with Hyundai after switching from Toyota.
Fourth fastest through the opening stage, La Bollene-Vesubie-Col de Turini, was a promising start for Takamoto Katsuta, but things quickly turned sour when his GR Yaris developed an e-brake issue on the next test. The Japanese driver shipped time through the series of tight hairpin bends and languishes 57.0s back from the lead in ninth overall.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Nikolay Gryazin claimed both stage wins to take the early lead from a packed field on the season opener.
The Toksport WRT driver opened up a commanding 16.7s advantage in his Skoda Fabia RS Rally2, leaving a pair of Frenchmen trailing in his wake.
In what is the first WRC appearance for the all-new Fabia, Gryazin showed no signs of hesitancy at coming to grips with his new machinery. He won the opening stage by 7.9s and the next by 8.6s – steering clear of any trouble despite there being patches of black ice.
“It was not a big push,” Gryazin said. “It was not slow, but it was a well-managed pace – if I want to push more, I can do. A lot of things have changed since last year and maybe it’s starting to work better. We will see over the next few days.”
Citroen drivers Stephane Lefebvre and Yohan Rossel complete the WRC2 top three, with Rossel left ruing a costly stall at the start of SS1 which cost him around five seconds.
Friday heads further north for two loops of three stages covering 65.46 miles in total. Morning and afternoon runs through Roure/Roubion/Beuil (11.39 miles), Puget-Theniers/Saint-Antonin (12.30 miles) and Brianconnet/Entrevaux (9.04 miles) are on the schedule. Once the cars leave the comfort of Monaco’s rally base in the morning there will be no opportunity for service until they return just before 7pm local time (10am ET) in the evening.
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