The opening round of the WRC in Monte Carlo certainly delivered its share of drama and challenge for the drivers. Though there was less snow than in previous years, the conditions lived up to expectations, varying from flat out dry tarmac to snow and treacherous black ice, aptly named verglas in French; which literally translates as glass ice.
At the end of the first stages on Thursday night, it was Thierry Neuville who mastered the conditions, with SS2 providing the sternest test of the drivers’ mettle. Despite losing time on SS1, Neuville pulled out a staggering 20 seconds on the next, pushing his slick-tyred i20 to the edge of adhesion.
His performance would prove to be an outlier, talking to Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler, he noted that the Hyundai driver’s advantage was likely psychological, being the only one at the sharp end of the pack in the same car as 2019. Innate familiarity with his machine allowed him to push closer to the limit, knowing exactly how it would react when it did step out of shape.
With Ott Tanak, Sebastien Ogier, and Elfyn Evans all newcomers to their respective steeds, their comfort zone was narrower, and discretion the wiser approach so early in the rally. Ultimately, Neuville’s sense of confidence in his machine, coupled with smart setup choices and bold tyre strategies would give him the edge.
Meanwhile, M-Sport’s drivers had an evening to forget. Overheating issues due to leaves blocking their radiator inlets plagued all of their cars on SS1. Then shortly into SS2, Teemu Suninen retired with a transmission failure and Gus Greensmith, come the end of the stage, stated, “the car wouldn’t go over 50kph,” the team confirming he had suffered a turbo problem.
Only Esapekka Lappi would make it through unscathed, well down on the front runners. Speaking the next day, technical director Chris Williams remarked, “we’ve had better weekends.”
Drama struck early on day two, Ott Tanak having a spectacular off on SS4. His i20 hit a hard compression at speed, upsetting the car and launching it off the side of the track. It proceeded to roll multiple times before coming to rest at the bottom of a rock face on a road below the stage. In a testament to modern safety standards in WRC, both Tanak and co-driver Martin Jarveoja were able to walk away, but the car was beyond salvage.
At the opposite end of the crash spectacle spectrum, Greensmith parked his Fiesta down a bank. Following a slow 180 spin on ice, he tried to flick the car around, only to unceremoniously slither backwards off the track, from which there could be no recovery.
Following Tanak’s retirement, the day developed into a three-way battle between the Toyotas of Evans and Ogier, and Neuville in the Hyundai. Evans won all three of the morning stages but, come the afternoon, his pace dropped, with the stages dirtier than expected, and he was overhauled by Ogier, who led into Saturday night by 1.2 seconds. Neuville, saying he struggled with the handling of his car and pace notes, maintained third place but could not close the leading Toyotas.
The balance swings
Tricky conditions as the rally moved into the Alps
Saturday dawned bright and clear, but with the first two stages climbing high into the alpine, studded tyres were still the order of the day. Neuville pulled back some time on Ogier and Evans in SS9 but on the second stage of the day, the Welshman was in full attack and retook the lead from Ogier, pulling out five seconds with Neuville dropping back again.
All of the drivers sounded a note of caution at the midday return to service in Gap. “Conditions are improving but it is still tricky,” said Neuville. Gauging just how hard to push, Evans told Motor Sport, was more a state of mind than a conscious act, “you don’t really think about it, if you think about it, it is too late. You have to go with your instinct, trust your feeling and the info from the gravel crew.”
By the end of SS11, Evans and Ogier were tied for the lead, an amazing statistic after 220 km of running
With temperatures rising, melting much of the ice and snow remaining on the roads, there was a temptation to switch to either a slick/stud combination or full slicks. However, with shaded areas still frozen and the stages dirty from the morning running, the latter choice would be a bold move.
Ultimately, all the front runners would opt for slicks. Evans later saying, “We had to make the choice before the gravel crew went through and it was a bit of a gamble. I had planned to take two studs, as an option, but Thierry took just one [spare] and I knew he was on the slick, we couldn’t give him the weight advantage, so went the same way.”
One man having a blinder on day three was M-Sport’s Lappi, making up for a poor first two days. He found greater confidence in the car and was able to pull within striking distance of fourth placed Loeb, aided by the French man dropping his pace through the challenging, ice peppered downhill sections of SS11.
His momentum would continue into Sunday and he ultimately overhauled Loeb to take fourth, salvaging an acceptable result for M-Sport after a troubled weekend, after the multiple world champion made a series of costly errors over the second half of the rally.
Astoundingly, by the end of SS11, Evans and Ogier were tied for the lead, an amazing statistic after 220 km of running. It would be the final stage of the day, SS12, La Breole-Selonnet, that would truly test the drivers.
Slush brought opportunities for the brave
On the first run through the stage (SS10), around 5km of the road had been sheet ice but by afternoon, some sections had totally thawed while others retained a mix of black ice and slush. For drivers willing to commit to seemingly dry corners, not knowing whether ice had thawed or remained as they turned in, while also taking advantage of ruts in the icy sections that provided some semblance of grip, there were big gains to be made.
Here, Evans was lucky to escape a trip into a ditch in the same section of stage where Loeb had spun earlier. As a portent of things to come, Neuville cut the gap to the leaders by 4.5sec.
Come the end of Saturday’s stages, in reference to his ditch encounter, Evans admitted that sometimes you need luck on your side. Fortunately for the Welshman, Ogier was over cautious on the ice and lost ten seconds. But as Neuville pointed out, it is a fine line between confidence and the scenery, “in the icy sections, if you go 2km/h faster, you lose the grip.”
As the teams began the trek back down to Monaco for the final day, just 6.4 seconds separated the top three.
King of the Cols
A threat of overnight snow on Saturday failed to materialise. However, conditions were still mixed, with patches of snow and ice, particularly across the iconic Col de Turini on the opening SS13. All of the drivers opted for a mix of either softs or supersoft tyres. With conditions better than reported by the safety crews, some drivers would lose out from being overly cautious.
Neuville was imperious. He pulled out five seconds on Evans, cutting the lead to just 1.4 sec, then another 5.4 sec on the second stage, putting him four seconds clear. Going into the second loops, he would further extend the gap.
It would be easy to attribute this added pace to his experience with the i20, but as he explained to Motor Sport, “the conditions yesterday were more tricky than today, I found it more difficult to keep pace with Elfyn and Seb. Today, conditions were less tricky and we were able to take five or six seconds on the stages. I think it is more the profile of the stages, we adapted the settings today for more circuit style roads, and we were very fast last year on Col de Turini, which shows our car works well in these stages. That is what makes the tiny difference, but when you have that on every corner, you get the time.”
Neuville with co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul
Neuville sealed his maiden Monte Carlo victory by a relatively safe margin of 12.6 seconds. Ogier and Evans had no response, but on the final pass of Col de Braus, Ogier dug deep and managed to overhaul Evans to snatch second place by a mere 1.7 seconds. For Neuville, the victory was as sweet one, saying: “It feels like a revenge for last year.”
There was little to split the performance of Toyota and Hyundai, the margins in Monte Carlo were tiny and any edge Neuville had thanks to experience with his car will reduce as the season progresses. It would have been interesting to see how Tanak would have fared had he not crashed out?
As it stands after one round, the season looks set to be a close fight between two manufacturers and four driver/co-drivers. It would also be unwise to discount M-Sport, who will likely add a surprise or two as their drivers grown in confidence. All three teams have further updates to bring to their cars through the year, and with margins as tight as they are, even the smallest improvements could prove decisive. A tantalising prospect as the WRC moves on to another unique set of stages, the snowy yumps of Sweden.