LEG 1: SARRAZIN HEADS PEUGEOT'S CHALLENGE
The first leg of the 2009 Rallye Monte-Carlo lived up every bit to its promise thanks to a menu of three stages which featured a staggering variety of conditions, ranging from fresh snow, ice and rain to dry asphalt. Choosing the ideal tyres for the different combinations proved crucial and the front-runners ran a variety of options, including studded and non-studded snow tyres, as well as 'slicks'. Tonight's leader is Finn Juho Hanninen, 11.9 seconds clear of Peugeot Sport's Stephane Sarrazin who claimed one fastest time.
In addition to being the opening round of this year's Intercontinental Rally Challenge, the 2009 Rallye Monte-Carlo also promises to be one of the calendar's most spectacular fixtures, too, thanks to weather conditions which have so far been in perfect keeping with the winter classic's reputation. The engineers, ice-note crews, weather forecasters and crews spent much of the day weighing
up the different tyre options, beginning with the choice for the first two stages at the pre-start service park in Monaco. The 2008 IRC Champion Nicolas Vouilloz opted for studded snow tyres which enabled the Peugeot 207 Super 2000 driver to post the fastest time on SS1, 2.3 seconds clear of Hanninen (Skoda) and 16.3s quicker than Gardemeister (Fiat) who both chose non- studded snow tyres. The opening test was also marked by the early retirement of Didier Auriol (Peugeot 207 Super 2000) who went off after taking the gamble of contesting the icy stage on dry weather tyres. Stephane Sarrazin, who also went out on 'slicks', succeeded in finishing eighth behind three other Peugeot runners, namely Sebastien Ogier (snow tyres), Freddy Loix (studded tyres front, non-studded rear) and Kris Meeke ('slicks').
In contrast, dry weather tyres turned out to be the best option for SS2 which saw Sarrazin record the best time, 13.3s ahead of Basso (Fiat) and 36.8s quicker than Kopecky (Skoda). Vouilloz dropped almost a minute on the second test and handed the lead to Hanninen (fourth fastest). At the following service halt, all the competitors thought long and hard about their tyre choices for the day's final test which turned out to be snowy towards the finish. Most runners chose studded snow tyres, including Peugeot UK's Kris Meeke who posted the fastest time to make it three best times from three for the Peugeot 207 Super 2000. Sarrazin completed SS3 just seven tenths of a second slower than the Ulsterman to move five seconds closer in the overall standings to Hanninen who opted for non-studded snow tyres. Nicolas Vouilloz was slowed by a front-right puncture and is a little more than half a minute adrift of the Finn this evening.
French youngster Sebastien Ogier, who is making his Monte Carlo debut in the colours of BFGoodrich, and who is also driving the 207 Super 2000 competitively for the very first time this week, is provisionally fourth overall, ahead of Peugeot Belgium-Luxemburg's Freddy Loix and Peugeot UK's Kris Meeke. Five Peugeot drivers figure in the overnight top-ten, while two other 207 Super 2000s follow in 13th and 19th places in the hands of Slovenia's Andrej Jereb and Italian Tobia Cavallini respectively.
Thursday's leg promises to be just as complex with a menu of six stages, including Saint Bonnet le Froid (SS5/SS8) where more snow is expected. Competitive action gets underway at 9.58am and the total length of Leg 2 is 443.08km, including 145.78km in stages.
Stephane Sarrazin: "It's been a very positive day. I was on slicks for SS1 which proved extremely difficult because the conditions were basically a cocktail of slush and ice. I did what I could to make up as much time as possible over the drier portions. The second stage was 90 per cent dry or damp, so I was on the ideal rubber for that one. Then, on SS3, I drove cautiously on the clear asphalt to start with, before pushing harder in the snow towards the end."
Nicolas Vouilloz: "The choice of studded tyres for the first two stages wasn't bad, but I lost a fair amount of ground on SS3 after picking up a puncture which made my car difficult to drive. I cut a corner a little too much and then had to live with the result of that for the last seven kilometres or so."
Freddy Loix: "I am pleased to be in the overnight top-five at the end of Day 1. The first stage was really difficult and I had to adjust my driving style to the conditions."
Sebastien Ogier: "It's been a tough day but the end result is positive. My first day in the 207 Super 2000 was marked by extremely treacherous conditions. On top of that, I picked up a slow puncture on the last stage after clipping a rock about 10km after the start. That must have cost me around 20 seconds, but I was a little fortunate because the end of SS3 was snowy."
Kris Meeke: "What an incredible day that was! I don't think dry weather tyres were the best option for the first two stages, and I was glad to get through them unscathed. I wanted to put in a good run on the last stage and I was delighted to learn that I had scored the fastest time."