2021 Monte Carlo Rally: Tänak on top as Suninen rolls out

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Hyundai's Ott Tänak leads the way after first two stages of Monte Carlo Rally after Timo Suninen spectacularly rolls his M-Sport Fiesta out

Estonian Ott Tanak and his co-pilot Estonian Martin Jarveoja steer their Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team during the ES 1 of the first stage of the 89th WRC Monte-Carlo Rally, between Saint-Disdier-en-Devoluy and Corps near Gap on January 21, 2021. (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP) (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images)

Tänak set early pace for Hyundai


Ott Tänak sent out a true message of intent on the opening leg of the 2021 Monte Carlo Rally by blitzing the first two stages, with Kalle Rovanperä an unexpected challenger in second place.

Looking to immediately make up for his massive crash at last year’s Monte, Tänak set the early pace with a 12min 05.07sec.

After a Covid-hit 2020 World Rally Championship resulted in a truncated seven-round season, many competitors were hoping to get WRC 2021 off to a flying start – perhaps taken a little too literally in the case of Timo Suninen.

With the likely lads at Toyota not getting close to Tänak on the first test, the unlikely figure of M-Sport’s Sunninen took up the challenge. The Finn really looked like he might have victory-contending pace – for most of a stage.

After setting some blistering split times, he was 0.5sec up on Tänak. Then it suddenly all went wrong. Suninen skidded across a road marking, hit the soft inside embankment then rolled down the outside bank. Fortunately, he and co-driver Mikko Markkula were unharmed.

M-Sport Team Principal Richard Millener didn’t appear best pleased: “Not what we wanted,” he said. “I feel so sorry for the team who worked so hard. We spent four days testing and that’s how we’re rewarded.

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“Great pace but the aim was to get the car to the finish and we’ve not even managed that on one stage. We said right before we left here, ‘It’s a long rally.’ Not this time, it’s a short one.”

M-Sport’s other driver, British hope Gus Greensmith, did the opposite to Sunninen — he was all at sea on pace, finishing SS1 43.4sec off and complaining of inconsistent handling — but at least he finished.

It was Toyota’s young charge Kalle Rovanperä who surprised many by being Tänak’s closest challenger in the rankings, 3sec back.

Rovanperä headed his two Toyota team-mates Elfyn Evans and Sébastien Ogier, who were third and fourth respectively. Ogier complained of intermittent brake pedal problems, attributing this to his lack of pace, though it wasn’t clear what the exact problem was.

Tänak’s Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville, driving with new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe for the first time, was a little further back, 3.9sec off the pace.

Finnish Kalle Rovanpera and his co-pilot Finnish Jonne Halttunen steer their Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT during the ES 1 of the first stage of the 89th WRC Monte-Carlo Rally, between Saint-Disdier-en-Devoluy and Corps near Gap on January 21, 2021. (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP) (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images)

Toyota’s Rovanperä was the surprise closest challenger to Tänak


Evans, Ogier and Neuville were separated by just 0.4sec after SS1. Hyundai’s Dani Sordo struggled, finishing 18.8sec down.

Onto SS2, and it was Tänak on top again. The Estonian lit up the timing screens, only for the impressive Rovanperä to do almost the same: he was 0.3sec behind after SS2, 3.3sec down in P2 overall.

“Obviously my engine engineers are making me on fire!” Ott Tänak

Tänak had initially failed to get off the line at the start of the second run, saying this attributed to his urgency.

“Obviously my engine engineers are making me on fire!” the Estonian exclaimed. “My engine stopped twice on the start and after two seconds already we were still stopped, so they made me on fire!”

The Estonian has said he feels he “knows this car now” and it shows, having an almost Toivonen like ‘oneness’ with his i20.

Evans, clearly pushing as he hustled and harried his car through the narrow country roads, put himself third overall, 8.5sec down, but described how difficult the conditions were.

“We were stopped at the start for a very long time, we started with zero grip and this tyre needs a bit of warm-up,” the Welshman said. “So it was very difficult for very long into the stage before we got any sort of feeling.”

Ogier was even more cautious on SS2, falling down to 5th overall and 16.9sec behind Tänak by the end of the stage. Despite having a wounded car, the Frenchman had set an example for Sunninen.

“We don’t know what happened, it’s not coming all the time,” said Ogier of his brake troubles. “I was quite cautious on this stage. Let’s have a look tonight at service. We’ll try to do better tomorrow. “

Thierry Neuville took 4sec out of his team-mate Tänak on the first split, but by the end of the stage found he had shipped 10sec to his Hyundai team-mate. The new relationship between driver and co-driver could take time to gel as Neuville appeared to be giving his young charge some advice after SS2, but they were still ahead of a cautious Ogier.

WRC2 drivers Andreas Mikkelsen and Adrien Formuax both impressed, getting their Skoda and Ford machinery ahead of the WRC cars of Greensmith and Takamoto Katsuta.

At the end of the first day — which ended before the French 6pm Covid curfew — Ott Tänak leads from Kalle Rovanperä, with Evans, Neuville, Ogier and Sordo following them up in WRC machinery. Britain’s Gus Greensmith is 10th.