Sébastien Ogier threw caution to the wind on Thursday evening’s opening leg at Rallye Monte-Carlo 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 to a brace of fastest times, heading team-mate Elfyn Evans by 6.0sec after 40.02km of competition.
An uncharacteristically dry start to this iconic event heightened the importance of tyre management, with several drivers overheating their rubber on the winding mountain passes around the Col de Turini.
Ogier, however, remained unphased and – for once – was delighted not to be opening the road. His late starting position played to his favour as he could pick out any tricky sections by spotting the tracks of his peers.
“It’s never easy to start this rally at night, but at least the conditions were not so inconsistent,” Ogier reflected. “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.
“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 Tänak rounds out the leading trio 9.4sec adrift of second-placed Evans. 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 Tänak’s nerves, and those tensions were raised further as he completed both stages without fifth gear.
Just one-tenth of a second behind is Hyundai star Thierry Neuville, who dropped around eight seconds by stalling his i20 N 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 champion Kalle Rovanperä had to tweak his driving style to keep the soft compound tyres on the front of his Toyota from overheating. The Finn is currently sandwiched by Hyundai cars in sixth overall, 1.6sec adrift Neuville with Dani Sordo 15.0sec behind him.
Seventh-placed Pierre-Louis Loubet adopted a cautious approach to his first day as a full-time M-Sport Ford driver. The same could be said for Hyundai debutant Esapekka Lappi, a mere 1.1sec in arrears.
Fourth-fastest through La Bollène-Vésubie – Col de Turini was a promising start for Takamoto Katsuta, but things quickly turned sour when his Yaris developed a handbrake issue on the next test. The Japanese driver haemorrhaged time through the series of tight hairpin bends and languishes 57.0sec back from the lead in ninth overall.
Friday heads further north for two loops of three stages covering 105.34km. Morning and afternoon runs through Roure / Roubion / Beuil (18.33km), Puget-Théniers / Saint-Antonin (19.79km) and Briançonnet / Entrevaux (14.55km) are on the schedule.