The opening Leg of Rallye Monte Carlo brought mixed fortunes for the Subaru World Rally Team. Making a remarkable Monte Carlo debut, Chris Atkinson finished the day second overall after a trouble free run through the twisty asphalt stages. The young Australian recorded three top-five stage times. Petter Solberg struggled with a poor tyre choice on the morning’s icy roads but turned things around in the afternoon and recorded the second fastest time on the final stage of the day. But soon after disaster struck when Solberg’s engine developed an oil leak on the road section back to service. Forty seven kilometres from his destination his car came to a halt and he retired. Frenchman Stéphane Sarrazin also struggled on slick tyres in the morning, but fought back to secure the second fastest time in SS5. He will start Leg two in seventh place overall.
SS1: 0833 St Sauveur Sur Tinee - Beuil 1 (22.23km)
Fastest Time: Loeb (Kronos) 15:14.0
SS2: 0941 Guillaumes - Valberg 1 (13.60km)
Fastest Time: Gronholm (Ford) 9:37.2
The 2006 FIA World Rally Championship started with the St Sauveur sur Tinee - Beuil stage, last used in the rally in 1994. Only 11 cars passed through the stage before it was cancelled due to heavy spectator traffic at the start. The wide and flowing road was extremely icy, making tyre choice very difficult. On a winter studded tyre Sébastien Loeb had the edge over championship rivals, setting a time 25secs faster than second-placed Gilles Panizzi’s Skoda. Gigi Galli, in a privately entered Mitsubishi Lancer, was third fastest while Subaru’s Chris Atkinson recorded the fifth fastest time on his Rallye Monte Carlo debut. Both Sarrazin and Solberg had gambled on a slick tyre but on the icy road they struggled for grip and finished eighth and eleventh fastest respectively.
The disruption caused by spectator traffic before the start of SS1 delayed the start of the second special stage and again only 11 cars passed through the speed test. The morning loop of stages was abandoned for the rest of the field and they returned to the service area in Monte Carlo. SS2 was yet another new-for-2006 stage and featured tight uphill hairpin bends as the road climbed to the finish next to a ski station. Ford’s Gronholm was quickest through the icy stage to take third overall from Galli, while rally leader Loeb was second fastest, only 2.5sec slower than the Finn. Subaru’s youngest driver, Chris Atkinson, was an impressive fifth quickest to maintain fifth overall, with team-mates Sarrazin seventh and ninth fastest to remain eighth and eleventh in the overall classification.
SS3: 1032 Pierlas - Ilonse 1 (23.22km)
SS4: 1438 St Sauveur Sur Tinee - Beuil 2 (22.23km)
Fastest Time: Loeb (Kronos) 14:43.9
Having seen the variations in times of the 11 cars that had passed through the first two stages, the 23km speed test from Pierlas to Ilonse was cancelled to enable FIA stewards to take a decision on the notional times to be awarded to the rest of the field. The stage was run only as a liaison section at road speeds and all cars returned to Monte Carlo for the scheduled 30 minute service. After considering the matter, it was decided to award those who had not completed SS1 and SS2 a combined time of 27min 52.7sec for both stages. The overall times for the 11 cars that had finished the speed tests were upheld.
After a 30 minute service halt in Monte Carlo, crews headed back to the mountains for the 22km pass from St Sauveur sur Tinee to Beuil. Although some of the sheet ice had melted since the stage was first run, the road remained wet and icy in places, with several drivers, including Gronholm, reporting low grip. Loeb was once again fastest, over 30secs quicker than the earlier run, with Skoda privateer François Duval second and Gronholm third. Subaru’s Petter Solberg was fifth fastest in the new Subaru Impreza WRC2006. Italian Galli retired from the Leg with a broken steering arm after hitting an object on the stage, while WRC newcomer Pieter Tsjoen went off on a patch of ice and hit a snow bank. He eventually rejoined to finish the stage nearly six minutes slower than Loeb.
SS5: 1536 Guillaumes - Valberg 2 (13.60km)
Fastest Time: Duval (Skoda) 9:43.3
SS6: 1624 Pierlas - Ilonse 2 (23.22km)
Fastest Time: Gronholm (Ford) 18:47.6
The short 13km stage of the event climbed to the highest point of the rally at over 1600m with a series of tight, uphill hairpin bends. Duval recorded the fastest time, 5.7secs faster than Subaru’s asphalt specialist Sarrazin, whose slick tyre choice suited the stage conditions particularly well. Petter Solberg was fifth quickest, while Atkinson had a steady run to maintain the overall fourth he had claimed on the previous stage. Toni Gardemeister, fifth in the overall classification, however closed the gap to Atkinson to just over seven seconds after a steamed up windscreen caused the Australian to stall and spin on a hairpin.
There was drama and disappointment in the challenging, twisty final stage of the Leg. Rally leader Loeb spun at a fourth gear corner and his car slid 10 metres off the road. Both Loeb and co-driver Elena were uninjured, but retired from the Leg. Loeb’s retirement elevated Gronholm to first overall, but there were further changes in the order as Panizzi reported handling problems with his Skoda and dropped to fourth. Subaru’s young charger Atkinson graduated to second overall in his first-ever Monte Carlo rally, although Gardemeister closed the gap to the Australian to just over three seconds. Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen also encountered problems when he spun and stalled at a hairpin close to the stage start, reporting handbrake problems. Petter Solberg achieved his best stage finish of the day with the second fastest time, but disappointment soon followed when his engine developed an oil leak on the road section 47km from Monte Carlo. The Norwegian stopped on the road, but the engine was irreparably damaged and he retired from the Leg.
SWRT PERFORMANCE DIRECTOR, DAVID LAPWORTH: "Clearly we're very disappointed that Petter's day has come to an end in this way. I suppose in many ways it has been a classic Monte Carlo day. We've had stage cancellations, difficult road conditions and dramatic time differences according to tyre choice. The field was 50/50 split on tyre choice this morning, with the more conservative guys coming out ahead; things were much closer this afternoon with everyone on similar tyres. Chris has had a fantastic day for a first timer. He's finished the Leg in second place, despite sticking to the plan to be conservative in both his tyre choices and his driving style. Stéphane was one of those who lost the tyre gamble on the first loop but he's kept a cool head and is still well placed for a good result. Like Stéphane, Petter lost out on the first two stages but he actually drove very well, got some time back in the afternoon and was on target to achieve a podium result until the oil leak."
PETTER SOLBERG: "I still can't really believe it. 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. Up to then the rally had been getting better and better for us. We didn't start well - in fact I don't think our tyre choice could have been any worse - but the afternoon was good, and our pace on the final stage was very encouraging. It's incredible really; it seems I have no luck here in Monte Carlo. It must change soon."
STEPHANE SARRAZIN: "This morning was extremely difficult. There was so much ice and snow on the ground that it was impossible to do much with the slick tyres that we'd chosen. To be honest, I'm still feeling quite lucky to be in the rally, it was so easy to make a big mistake. The second loop this afternoon was much better, I'm feeling good about the car and my driving and I'm very much looking forward to a big fight tomorrow."
CHRIS ATKINSON: "Obviously I'm very happy; it's been a good day for Glenn and me. 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. The stages today have been very interesting and a tough challenge. 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. We learned a lot on the asphalt rallies last year and we put it to good use. Our plan for tomorrow is to keep it consistent, just carry on doing what we've done today and see where it gets us. I'm looking forward to it."
NEWS FROM PIRELLI
MARIO ISOLA, PIRELLI COMPETIZIONI RALLY MANAGER: "It has been a very mixed day for the team. We are very pleased that Chris Atkinson has achieved such a good result today. He has shown himself to be a real talent, even on a surface on which he does not have huge experience. Obviously Petter's retirement is disappointing, especially when he had such a fast pace in the final stage of the day. Both Petter and Stéphane were unlucky with their tyre choice this morning, but the decision to use slick tyres was taken on the correct information for the three stages early in the morning. We are confident Stéphane will continue to move up the leaderboard and wish both him and Chris the best of luck tomorrow."
Leg two of Rallye Monte Carlo comprises six special stages and a total of 131.69 competitive kilometres to the west and north of Monaco close to the Var river. The Leg features two loops of three stages, including two repeated tests and the first run through the famous Col de Turini. Cars will leave parc fermé from 0600 before an overnight stop at 1856.