FILE PHOTO: Estonian driver Ott Tanak with Finnish World Rally Champion Tommi Makinen (L) at the service area of WRC Rally Finland in Jyvaskyla, Finland July 28, 2018. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS
(Reuters) – Toyota’s Ott Tanak led the season-opening Monte Carlo rally on Thursday after team mate Kris Meeke and nine times world champion Sebastien Loeb, returning with Hyundai, hit early problems.
Estonian Tanak won the opening stage and finished the night 9.1 seconds clear of France’s reigning champion Sebastien Ogier, back with Citroen after winning the last six titles with Volkswagen and the M-Sport Ford team.
“We knew the start would be tricky and made a safe tyre choice to cover both stages. Some places were even more slippery and tricky than we expected,” said Tanak.
Belgian Thierry Neuville, last year’s overall runner-up with Hyundai, slotted into third position and a further 5.2 seconds behind.
Loeb, who won all his titles with Citroen, was eighth and 55.2 seconds off the pace after struggling with studded tyres on dry roads in the second of the day’s two stages after going well on the icier opening stint.
“The opening has not been too bad, even if it is not easy to start in the night and in icy conditions,” said Loeb, who arrived in the French Alps after two gruelling weeks on the Dakar Rally in Peru.
“The first stage went OK but we didn’t select the best tyres for the second one and we suffered as a result of that. We perhaps under-estimated the performance gap between the slick tyres and four snow tyres.”
Meeke, making his debut for champions Toyota, picked up a front right puncture on the second 20.59 km Avancon-Notre Dame du Laus stage, won by Neuville on slick tyres, and was seventh overall.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis