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First in the start order, fastest through the stage, and first overall – Sebastien Loeb began his ‘retirement’ from the WRC by building a 1min 20.3sec overnight advantage after a crushing victory in the final stage of the opening leg of Rallye Monte-Carlo.

The nine-time world champion, competing in the first of just four scheduled outings this year in a Citroen DS3, was quickest by 34.4sec from Citroen Total Abu Dhabi team-mate Mikko Hirvonen. But even the 38-year-old French master found conditions on SS4 difficult, despite a full set of studded tyres.

“There was less snow than this morning. But near the end, while the road looked dry, it’s freezing again and I lost and grip and some confidence. I had a few small moments….I’m happy to be at the end of the day,” said Loeb.   

Hirvonen was frustrated with pretty much everything, but his speed was still sufficient to propel him from sixth midway through the leg into third tonight. “I was too cautious, but when I try to push harder I go wide. I really hate these conditions. I really, really hate to drive like this but at least I’m here,” said the 32-year-old Finn.

Sebastien Ogier is the meat in the Citroen sandwich in second overall. The Volkswagen Polo R driver was fourth fastest, 53.7sec slower than Loeb, but offered no clues as to where the time went. “We did our best but it wasn’t easy in there.  There was a lot of mud,” he said.

Dani Sordo lies fourth, the Spaniard reporting no major issues in Burzet en route to sixth fastest time in a Citroen DS3. Fifth on the stage and fifth overall is Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn picked up a front right puncture on his Volkswagen Polo R about 5km from the stage finish, and lost 30sec. He is 31sec behind Dani Sordo.

Mads Ostberg was unhappy with the day, but the Norwegian could be pleased after setting third fastest time in his Fiesta RS. “It was very tricky. In some places there was ice where we didn’t have it marked in our notes. In others we had ice marked and there was none.  We’re doing the best we can, but I’m disappointed,” admitted the Qatar M-Sport driver.

Worse was to come when his car stopped on the liaison section after the final stage with an electrical sensor problem. Team engineers provided advice on the telephone as Ostberg worked to solve the problem but he eventually checked in 11 minutes late, and is likely to receive a 1m50s time penalty.

In trouble on the final stage were Qatar World Rally Team duo Thierry Neuville and Juho Hanninen. Neuville retired after ripping the front left wheel from his Fiesta RS and with Rally 2 in operation here, the Belgian’s rally is over. In an unfortunate coincidence, the spot he stopped at was just 1.5kms away from where he retired last year.

Hanninen spun 4km from the finish and lost more time reversing back and forth to turn round in the particularly narrow roads. He lies eighth.

WRC 2

Skoda Fabia S2000 driver Sepp Wiegand holds a 60.3sec advantage over Armin Kremer in all-German battle at the head of the WRC 2 category.

Wiegand was faster than his fellow countryman on the first three stages, but veteran Kremer battled back on the final stage to slash the deficit by almost 25sec in his Subaru Impreza.

“We had no major problems,” explained Wiegand. “I tried to drive safely and it worked.  But this is a long and tough rally so we’ll wait and see how things are after the second leg tomorrow.”

Early leader was Esapekka Lappi, who was fastest through the first stage despite hitting a rock and breaking the front suspension wishbone on his Skoda Fabia S2000. He started the second test but the damage was too bad for him to continue, the young Finn stopping after 20km.  

Ukraine’s Yuriy Protosov lies third in another Impreza, more than 2min 30sec behind Kremer.

WRC 3

At the end of the first day of competition in the FIA’s new championship for front-wheel drive cars, Frenchman Renaud Poutot holds first place, with his compatriot Sebastien Chardonnet 1m05.9s behind in second.

Driving a Citroen DS3 R3T, Poutot won two of the opening day’s four stages and ran reliably all day but rarely seemed at ease in the varied conditions. However he was the chief beneficiary of an unlucky opening day for his rival Chardonnet, also in a DS3 R3T, who picked up two costly punctures and spent the rest of the day playing catch up.

Chardonnet got his first puncture on the rally’s opening stage after he clipped a rock and had to stop to change the wheel. More than two minutes adrift after SS1 he recovered well, going 1m13.5s quicker than Poutot through SS2, and 12.3sec quicker on SS3. But his recovery took another knock on SS4 when another rock strike resulted in his second puncture, 6km before the finish line.

Anther Frenchman, Quentin Gilbert, was to have started in a third DS3, but he was forced to withdraw his entry after losing his driving licence for a speeding offence just before the rally.

Leading positions after SS4:
Pos  Driver                Team/Car              Time/Gap  1.  Sebastien Loeb        Citroen             1h39m49.0s  2.  Sebastien Ogier       VW                   + 1m20.3s  3.  Mikko Hirvonen        Citroen              + 1m46.7s  4.  Dani Sordo            Citroen              + 2m01.2s  5.  Jari-Matti Latvala    VW                   + 2m32.2s  6.  Evgeny Novikov        Qatar M-Sport Ford   + 2m50.6s  7.  Bryan Bouffier        PH Citroen           + 2m57.1s  8.  Juho Hanninen         Qatar M-Sport Ford   + 3m03.5s  9.  Mads Ostberg          Qatar M-Sport Ford   + 4m45.1s 10.  Martin Prokop         Czech Ford           + 7m11.0s   
 

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