Juho Hanninen has completed the opening day of the centenary edition of Rallye Monte-Carlo, round one of the 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge, with a lead of 44.5 seconds.
Driving a Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, the 29-year-old Finn was fastest on two of Wednesday’s four special stages, which were shown live on Eurosport, to head Freddy Loix at the overnight halt in Valence following a faultless drive.
The stages in the Ardeche and Haute Loire regions of France were held in largely dry and bright conditions as the traditional ice and snow, that have been a feature of the event in recent years, didn’t materialise.
Hanninen, the defending IRC champion, has been consistently upping his pace on asphalt since finishing second on this event last season. He underlined that improvement with a staggering time on stage two, which was 15.1s faster than any other driver could manage. Hanninen and co-driver Mikko Markkula also gained the upper hand with a series of inspired tyre choices for the dry, albeit chilly, weather.
Le Mans 24 Hours racer Stephane Sarrazin had set the pace on the opening stage from Le Moulinon to Antraigues in his Peugeot France 207 Super 2000. However, his switch from a medium compound tyre to the softer version for the Burzet-St Martial stage did not suit the dry stage surface and he dropped back with a handling imbalance, before losing further ground on stage three, St Bonnet Le Froid, when his car’s intercom system failed and he couldn’t hear co-driver Jacques-Julien Renucci’s instructions for seven kilometres.
Sarrazin’s delay enabled Loix to move into second. The Belgian Skoda driver would complete day one with the fastest time on the second St Bonnet Le Froid stage. Loix, who holds the record of IRC wins with a tally of six, admitted to making a slightly hesitant start but was otherwise satisfied with his performance.
Former world rally champion Petter Solberg is third in another Peugeot after moving ahead of Sarrazin on stage four. The Norwegian said he was lucky to avoid a puncture when he slid wide on a right-hand bend on stage one and nudged a wall. He also suggested his lack of dry-weather running in his 207 was masking his true speed.
Guy Wilks, who was running first on the road, is fifth overnight after an encouraging, error-free start to his career with Peugeot UK. Jan Kopecky, runner-up in the IRC for the past two seasons, is sixth in the second factory Skoda, despite admitting to a lack of confidence behind wheel of his Fabia. The Czech had trailed French champion Bryan Bouffier heading into stage four but moved in front when Bouffier’s Peugeot developed a rear differential glitch, which left Bouffier with the feeling that his car was in front-wheel drive mode only.
Francois Delecour is eighth in his privateer 207. The French legend, who won Rallye Monte-Carlo back in 1994, wasn’t satisfied with the handling of his car and is set to start Thursday’s stages with a revised set-up. “We tested in fog, rain and mud but we had none of those things today,” said Delecour. “But we are doing a very good job in a private car.”
Bruno Magalhaes, who bemoaned a few incorrect tyre choices and fading brakes in the morning, was in the top 10 when he crashed his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 into retirement on a sixth-gear corner on stage four. His misfortune elevated Jean-Sebastien Vigion to ninth and M-Sport Ford Fiesta driver Julien Maurin to 10th. Under the revised point-scoring system for 2011, Maurin is now in contention for the final IRC drivers’ championship point.
While the weather remained unseasonably mild, several drivers hit trouble on the demanding mountainous asphalt roads. First to fall was Andreas Mikkelsen, who was making his debut for Skoda UK Motorsport. The Norwegian driver’s challenge ended after four corners when he slid into a low wall on a right-hand bend, punctured his car’s left-rear tyre and damaged the suspension to the extent he was unable to continue.
Nicolas Vouilloz, tacking his first rally for 12 months, suffered a front-right puncture on stage one, as did Henning Solberg, who retired his M-Sport Fiesta as a result. Thierry Neuville crashed his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 on the first stage, which also claimed Australia’s Chris Atkinson, who retired his PROTON Satria Neo with an electrical failure 700 metres into the test. Atkinson’s PROTON team-mate P-G Andersson went no further than stage two when he broke a wheel off his car hitting a rock seven kilometres into the stage.
Toni Gardemeister lost more than three minutes with a puncture on stage three and is 13th overnight in his Peugeot, one place ahead of ex-Grand Prix driver Alex Caffi, who is making his Rallye Monte-Carlo debut in a Skoda.
Swiss Florian Gonon is the leading IRC Production Cup contender in his Subaru Impreza, one place ahead of Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer driver Patrick Artru.
Pierre Campana heads the IRC 2WD Cup battle ahead of fellow Clio driver Andrea Crugnola after defending champion Harry Hunt lost several minutes when he went off the road on stage one.
Wednesday’s closing stage, St Bonnet Le Froid, was halted after Michel Boetti and Emmanuelle Nas de Tourris crashed their Peugeot 207. Boetti suffered a broken leg and was flown by helicopter to hospital in Lyon to undergo treatment. Nas de Tourris was uninjured. The stage was stopped after the first 29 cars had completed the run and the drivers behind received the time they recorded on the first pass through the repeated stage.
Thursday’s action features two loops of stages run twice north-east of Valence and separated by a service stop in the city. All four stages will again be shown live on Eurosport.