Marcus Gronholm is still getting used to his Ford Focus RS WRC, and he hates the icy roads of Monte Carlo, but the two-time champion is still in the lead after the first day of the Monte Carlo Rally; the season opener of the World Rally Championship.
It had looked like another Sebastien Loeb demonstration event: the French ace looking for his fourth consecutive Monte Carlo victory had taken two stage victories in the first four stages -- SS3 was canceled -- to build up over a minute lead over Gronholm in a privateer Citroen Xsara WRC.
Gronholm, on the other hand, struggled immediately, spinning just minutes after taking his first start for the Ford WRC team: "I spun about 3 km after the start of the first stage on a right-hand corner," he recounted. "It was marked in my pace notes as 'really slippery' but it was really, really, really slippery! The car ended facing the way I had come, and I stalled the engine a couple of times trying to manoeuvre it back in the right direction."
But the conditions at Monte Carlo are treacherous at the best of times, and Loeb was caught out on SS6 (Pierlas-Ilonse), spinning off on black ice and sliding down a hillside to put an end to his day.
"But we did not hit anything, which makes me hope that there is no real damage to it," he continued, ever hopeful. "We will have to wait to find out if it is possible for us to re-start the rally tomorrow. And if that is the case, we will see what we can hope for over the distance that remains."
A happy second on the day was Chris Atkinson, taking his first Monte Carlo Rally start for Subaru. The young Australian never threatened Loeb or Gronholm on outright speed, but a series of solid drives, and the potential retirements of Loeb and Petter Solberg elevated him to second place, 83 seconds behind Gronholm.
"Obviously I'm very happy: it's been a good day for (co-driver) Glenn (Macneall) and me," Atkinson said. "We've stuck exactly to our pre-event plan, haven't taken any risks and have ended up in second place overall. In fact, I think that's the only thing that we weren't really planning for. We haven't been going slowly but we haven' t been taking risks either. We've just driven sensibly, on safe tyres and the results have been incidental."
"I still can't really believe it," Solberg said. "We were cruising home after the stage and it just happened. We stopped and tried to fix it but there was nothing we could do. The oil had leaked out and we had no chance. It's incredible really; it seems I have no luck here in Monte Carlo. It must change soon."
Toni Gardemeister, who lost his Ford works drive to Gronholm this year, is a commendable third in his Astra Racing-entered privateer Peugeot 307 WRC. With, again, a set of consistent times throughout the day's six stages, he is just over three seconds behind Atkinson, and easily in the mix for the fight for the podium.
And while Skoda withdrew its works team from the 2006 championship, Francois Duval and Gilles Panizzi, running in the "Manufacturer 2" category, had one of the marque's best days in recent years. Duval took the outright stage win on SS5, and Panizzi took one second and one third place.
While Loeb didn't finish the final stage, if the Kronos team can repair the car in the allotted two hours and fourty-five minutes, the Frenchman will be able to continue the rally in the morning with just a five-minute penalty for not completing SS6 -- potentially putting him in ninth place, 3:42 behind Gronholm and just ahead of his teammate Dani Sordo.
With Loeb's speed, anything could happen yet ...