Ogier, Loeb duke it out in opening night of WRC season

Sebastien Ogier in action

Archrivals Sebastien Ogier and Sebastien Loeb have left the opening stages of the World Rally Championship’s new season atop the timesheets.

For the first time in two decades, neither Ogier nor Loeb will contest the full season, leaving the door open for another driver to stamp their authority.

But for now, the two champions remain the men to beat, just 6.7s separating them after the first night of the Rallye Monte-Carlo, where the championship’s new hybrid Rally1 cars are debuting.

With the early lead in hand, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Ogier said: “I was a bit surprised to see I was fastest in Stage 1 because to be honest I didn’t really have a great feeling in the car, but the time was good so I cannot complain.

“On the other hand Stage 2 felt a bit better in the car. The cars are very different from last year and I think everybody’s trying to adapt at the moment and there are many parameters which can be improved.

“The times are still quite close with the competition, so it already looks like it’s going to be a tight and exciting fight for the first time with these cars.”

Loeb, who is driving for M-Sport Ford for the first time in his decorated career, noted: “We had a good start in the first one, but it was very tricky on the top with some white parts and ice.

“I didn’t want to make a mistake on the ice so I was a bit too careful. The second one was hard on the tyres.

“I overheated them before the middle of the stage and struggled to keep the car in the right position.”

Elfyn Evans (Toyota) is not far behind in third, but it was M-Sport Ford which came out of the blocks best overall with all four cars in the top seven.

Adrien Fourmaux runs fourth, ahead of team-mates Gus Greensmith (fifth) and Craig Breen (seventh).

Sandwiched between Greensmith and Breen is the lead Hyundai of Thierry Neuville, in what marks a slow start for the all-new i20 N. Ott Tanak is eighth and Oliver Solberg 10th.

“It has not been an ideal start, but we have to be proud of ourselves for getting three cars to the start of the rally,” said Hyundai Motorsport deputy team director Julien Moncet.

“They are still here after the first stages; this is a positive. We would, of course, have liked to have a better performance.

“We know we have a lot of work to do but it’s only the first day. We have new regulations and a brand-new car, so we’re learning all the time.

“Our target now is to solve all the problems we have seen today across our three crews because tomorrow is a long day without midday service. Reliability will be the key.

“In Monte, if you can bring the cars home then a good result is usually not far away.”

Takamoto Katsuta was the other driver to finish Day 1 inside the 10.

Toyota young gun Kalle Rovanpera, the youngest event winner in WRC history, is on the back foot down in 12th after spinning in SS1.

Friday’s running comprises of six special stages.

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