Mikko Hirvonen capped an impressive competition debut for the M-Sport Fiesta Super 2000 by completing the opening leg of Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo with a 41.9-second lead over reigning Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion Kris Meeke.
Hirvonen, from Finland, went fastest
on Wednesday morning’s first stage from Burzet to Lachamp Raphael and was never headed at the top of the leaderboard thereafter. He was quickest again when the 27.27-kilometre run was repeated in the afternoon and was able to extend his advantage after Peugeot 207 driver Stephane Sarrazin suffered a puncture on stage four and slipped down the order.
The French driver’s delay promoted Meeke into second place. The Briton adopted a cautious approach and drove without error throughout the day in his efforts to begin his title defence with a points finish, having crashed out of this event last season. Meeke felt he could have been closer to the leader but for a confidence-denting moment on the second stage when he locked up at high speed braking for a left-hand corner.
Juho Hanninen heads the works Skoda Motorsport challenge after lead driver Jan Kopecky lost more than three minutes with a front-right puncture close to the start of the first stage. Hanninen reported a few scares in the thick fog that descended on a 12-kilometre section of the second stage from St Pierreville to Antraigues, but otherwise enjoyed a trouble-free day. Kopecky recovered to hold 12th overnight.
Nicolas Vouilloz, on a one-off drive with the Skoda squad, holds fourth overall after the first day of competition. He spent the morning acclimatising to the Fabia S2000 and admitted his choice of tyres had been too conservative.
Last year’s Monte Carlo winner Sebastien Ogier had closed to within 4.9 seconds of leader Hirvonen after two stages but his hopes of a top finish evaporated when he went off the road on the third stage on a patch of snow and damaged his front-right wheel, losing 1m30s in the process. He fought back with the quickest time on the final stage of the day to complete the leg 1m51s adrift of Hirvonen in fifth overall.
Peugeot Portugal driver Bruno Magalhaes said he was satisfied with how his Monte Carlo debut had gone so far as he adapted to driving on slippery asphalt for the first time. He lies sixth overnight, one place ahead of Finn Toni Gardemeister, the lead Abarth Grande Punto pilot.
Gardemeister lost time by running dry weather tyres on the rain-hit opening brace of stages, when he overshot a left-hander on the second run and clouted a stone wall. Damage was miraculously limited to a scuffed front-right bumper and Gardemeister was able to continue his challenge for a top-six finish.
Sarrazin, who had complained of a loss of engine power on the first stage, reached the overnight halt in Valence in eight, clearly frustrated that his bid for victory had suffered a serious blow due to his puncture, which added almost three minutes to his total time.
Austria’s Franz Wittmann spent the morning stages adapting to his Peugeot 207, which he was using for the first time in the IRC. He improved his pace in the afternoon and completed the first leg in ninth but said he still lacked confidence.
Briton Guy Wilks lies tenth overnight in the Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia. With seldom experience of driving his car on asphalt, Wilks used the day to gather more mileage in the car and experiment with different settings. He reckoned his choice of tyres hadn’t been ideal for the conditions, while a spin on the final stage of the day cost him 20 seconds.
Leading Clio R3 European Trophy runner Mathieu Arzeno, from France, tops the IRC 2WD Cup in 13th overall with Italian Matteo Gamba second and Belgium’s Kris Princen third.
Of the 58 starters, 46 crews returned to the service in Valence following a tough day of competition in the French Ardeche region. Thursday’s action is due to get underway with the 25.30-kilometre stage from Labatie D’Andaure to St Pierre Sur Doux.
“This rally is so much about tyres. The car is handling well and it’s great to be leading but on this rally a 40-second lead is nothing because it can all change in a minute. We went for a combination of snow tyres and intermediates on the second loop of stages and that seemed to work quite well. You also need to have the right information to make the choice work. We’ve not made too many adjustments to the car, just been trying to drive safely. But of course we have to do the same now for the rest of the rally.”
Mikko Hirvonen, first overall
“We’ve had three good stages out of four. If you offered me second place before the start of today I would have taken that. I’ve got half my mind on the championship but people like Ogier and Hirvonen have got nothing to lose whereas I have because they’re not doing the full championship. In the morning we lost 40s over 20ks when I lost my confidence after hitting some slippery Tarmac. Had it not been for that we would have been very close to the lead.”
Kris Meeke, second overall
“I made the same combination of tyre choices for the afternoon as I did for the morning. However it did not work quite as well because the conditions were worse the second time but not full snow. It’s always a compromise and I do not think I made a bad choice. I’m very happy to be where we are overnight and when you’re competing against someone like Mikko you have to remember he’s one of the best drivers in the world.”
Juho Hanninen, third overall
TOP TEN POSITIONS AFTER LEG ONE
1 Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen Ford Fiesta S2000 1h34m01.8s
2 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle Peugeot 207 S2000 +41.9s
3 Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m04.4s
4 Nicolas Vouilloz/Benjamin Veillas Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m20.3s
5 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m51.1s
6 Bruno Magalhaes/Carlos Magalhaes Peugeot 207 S2000 +2m28.1s
7 Toni Gardemeister/Tomi Tuominen Abarth Grande Punto S2000 +2m43.2s
8 Stephane Sarrazin/Jacques Julien Renucci Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m15.8s
9 Franz Wittmann/Klaus Wicha Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m44.1s