Snow, slush and ice – Sebastien Ogier proved why he is the world’s best by dominating through all of Rally Monte-Carlo’s unique challenges. A controlled drive by the champion had its own moments of peril, a spin and a visit to a roadside ditch, but was ultimately epitomised by the spectacular times Ogier was able to find when required.
The 22.8-mile downhill Thoard – Sisteron stage opened the 2018 World Rally Championship and who could have predicted the drama it was to bring. The atmosphere surrounding a stage run at night is always special and this was no exception, with a treacherous curtain-raiser on the famous Rallye Monte Carlo. Fans lined the winding asphalt roads, waiting to see the latest breed of World Rally Cars blast down the mountainside. Flares in hand paired with flags on the road edge to display their support for the WRC superstars.
The reversed route was to surprise everyone. Drama was anticipated, but no-one was expecting the number of incidents that prevailed on the first stage of the season. Running downhill, the slippery conditions were magnified by the lack of grip crews experienced while braking on the negative gradient.
Ogier spins, Tanak stopped, Neuville stopped… WRC’s live feed was on fire.
Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Elfyn Evans also suffered incidents on the tricky opener. Meeke, Evans and Thierry Neuville lost two, three and four minutes respectively, putting any chance of a Monte-Carlo win out the window.
In true Ogier fashion, he managed to control his spin and finish SS1 on top of the leaderboard. A position the Gap native wouldn’t relinquish.
The Frenchman’s home victory didn’t come without threat from former team-mate and Toyota’s new star, Ott Tanak. Two stage wins on Friday helped Tanak close the margin to Ogier from 42-seconds to just 15s. However, all of Tanak’s hard work was to be undone on Saturday’s snowy opening stage. A remarkable stage-time by Ogier took over a minute from the Estonian and left him with a comfortable lead to manage.
Tanak’s strong Toyota debut was backed up by team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala’s third-place finish. Toyota looked set to finish 2-3-4 only for Esapekka Lappi to drop four places after an overshoot and stall on the rally’s final stage.
Kris Meeke, who benefited from Lappi’s mistake, climbed the leaderboard through the weekend with an uncharacteristically steady approach proving fruitful in the end. Staying out of trouble he won the Power Stage to add five championship points to his fourth-place finish. Citroen’s lead driver struggled to see the positives though after a weekend he described as horrendous and an absolute nightmare. It seems the problems witnessed in 2017 are still holding the Citroen C3 back. Rally Sweden will be its ultimate test.
Neuville was another driver to charge back up the leaderboard through the weekend. Five stage wins helped the Belgian salvage a fifth position finish after a disastrous first stage. The pace of last year’s runner-up may have been impressive but his weekend was littered with mistakes, something that cost him the championship last year.
Hyundai’s weekend as a whole was less than desirable. Neuville was the only representative in the top ten. Andreas Mikkelsen suffered a broken alternator and asphalt expert, Dani Sordo, was another to suffer the consequences of an over-aggressive approach to the icy road conditions. A difficult weekend for a team that entered the season as favourite to steal M-Sport’s manufacturers’ crown.
Irish hopes of a strong result for Breen were ended when his Citroen suffered front brake failure on Friday. Unable to push until the issue was fixed in service, Breen and co-driver Scott Martin had salt rubbed in their wounds when they were the first crew to tackle the snowy roads the following day, thanks to the reversed running order.
So, beyond all the drama and excitement it was a rather familiar end result. A fifth Monte-Carlo win in a row for Ogier puts him in an all too familiar position at the top of the championship standings. Who can challenge his crown? Well, Ott Tanak was the driver who looked most likely to in Monte-Carlo. Toyota surprised the rallying world last February, winning Rally Sweden, and you wouldn’t bet against the Tommi Makkinen led outfit to repeat the achievement in less than a month’s time.
Photos from Red Bull Content Pool