Schilke, WRC correspondent
Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena hold the early lead on the 2012 World Rally Championship opening event. The eight-time champions were actually behind Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala by 30 seconds but when all was said and done, the pair that have won the Monte Carlo Rally five times were on top of the leaderboard.
There were four stages today with the usual first pass for S1 and S2, following the service break, they repeated the same stages in the afternoon. The weather today in France was cold and dry with a little snow and some icy patches in the Ardecehe region, which is expected for a winter rally.
Loeb explained why they lost the lead at the end of the second stage after winning the first stage, “I didn’t think the time differences would be so big. We took a bit of gamble in putting on a mix of slicks and studded tyres.” The Citroen ace went on to take the fastest times in the third and fourth stages.
“We didn’t have the best tyres this morning, but I knew that I could put in a big performance this afternoon because I had the right tyres. As soon as we hit the tarmac between two snow-covered sections, the extra-soft tyres provided me with exceptional grip,” Loeb said
The news from the Ford camp is that Latvala and his co-driver Miikka Antilla are out of the contest after crashing on the final stage today. It was reported that both Finns were uninjured in today’s roll over of their Ford Fiesta RS. They will not return as the WRC's SuperRally rule is not in place for the Monte Carlo event.
“Ten kilometres into the stage the road changed from dry to an icy section. Then on a fast right-hand corner which tightened 90 degrees, I started to concentrate only on the ice and not on the notes. I was carrying too much speed at that point and I tried to get the car back on the road but it kept sliding wide,” explained Latvala.
On his holding the lead on the first leg, Loeb said, “It’s a shame that Jari-Matti is out of the race because it would have been very close this evening and we could have looked forward to a good scrap tomorrow. In any case, holding a one-minute lead over Sordo and Solberg means I can’t afford to relax at all!”
MINI is in full form for the 2012 season after taking a year to develop their WRC entry. So with the championship in mind today is a good indication that the team will have a great season, at least on tarmac events. Last year Sordo was very competitive in MINI on the surface but finds himself over a minute behind Loeb after today's four wintery tests.
“This is a very special rally and today the conditions were really, really tricky," stressed Sordo. "It was very easy to make a mistake in the snow with the slick tyres. I made a small mistake on the second stage and broke the rear wheel. I lost a little bit of time, but am lucky I didn’t break a lot more things on the car. I keep being asked if I can challenge Sébastien Loeb for the win, but after the last stage I am not sure I can as his time was incredible. When I arrived at the end of the stage and saw his time I thought wow! Now I know why he is an eight times world champion.”
A close battle is forming over second place, with Petter Solberg sitting third just a second off Sordo's time. The Norwegian is out of his privateer Citroen this year to join the ranks of the powerful Ford program. Desingnated as the team's number two, with Latvala out it will be this former champion's job to fly the blue oval onto this podium this weekend.
The car was absolutely fantastic and I’m really pleased with our pace.
"We didn't make a perfect tyre choice for the final stage because there wasn't enough snow," admitted Solberg, "but we are still in a podium spot and only one second behind Dani [Sordo] so I’m very happy. The car was absolutely fantastic and I’m really pleased with our pace. I actually really surprised myself! It is just up to me to get some more kilometres under my belt. It is fantastic to be back with the Ford team and so close to Seb [Loeb’s] times.”
While MINI takes on the WRC in earnest the next team to hopefully vie for the title is Volkswagen, who decided to run their drivers in a Skoda Fabia S2000 while the Polo R WRC is developed back in Germany. With Sebastien Ogier behind the wheel there is no shortage of talent in VW's program, which was aptly demonstrated today when the Frenchman took forth overall.
With all these new teams breaking into the sport the second string M-Sport Ford team will have their work cut out for them if they would like to stay at the sharper end of the field. Evgeny Novikov is leading the way for M-Sport after the first day in fifth, while teamate François Delecour rounds out the top seven.
Sandwiched between them is non other than Mikko Hirvonen, Ford's former star driver, now playing teammate to Loeb in a Citroen. The Finn struggled through the day, first by taking things a bit to careful and then not being careful enough. On the third stage Hirivonen damaged a rear brake rotor and had to finish the leg with only three working brakes. On icy roads the imbalence is almost impossible to control, but he managed to hold on to sixth, and is 2 minutes and thirty seconds off Loeb's pace.
“It was a difficult day but I am pleased to be here," said Hirvonen. "There are nevertheless some positives I can take away. This morning, I was a little nervous. But this afternoon, I had good pace on the sections where the grip was consistent. It could have been worse and I think I still have a chance of a podium finish.”