Elfyn Evans dominated Thursday evening’s opening two speed tests to claim the early lead of Rallye Monte-Carlo.
The Welshman, runner-up in last year’s FIA World Rally Championship battle, made clear his intentions to become the cream of the crop in 2024 as he ended the short opening leg with a 15.1-second advantage over Thierry Neuville.
Evans, driving a Toyota GR Yaris, won the 21.01km special stage from Thoard to Saint-Geniez by 5.2sec. He then added a further 6.8sec to his lead by topping the timesheets for the following 25.19km test from Bayons to Bréziers.
Predominantly dry conditions offered relatively high levels of grip compared with previous years for the night-time loop. It followed a dazzling start ceremony in Monaco’s Casino Square, where His Serene Highness The Prince of Monaco flagged away the leading cars.
“In the first one, we had quite an okay feeling,” Evans said. “We seemed to have a clean run through, but the second one was a bit more complicated, and there was quite a lot more going on with the conditions and the shiny Tarmac.
“The objective was just to get through cleanly more than anything. Of course, I am happy, but it’s just the beginning.”
Neuville was worried about his tyres overheating in the opener but overtook Ott Tänak in the next test to claim second as his Estonian team-mate struggled with a mapping issue that caused his Hyundai i20 N’s throttle to stick. The Belgian driver later revealed that he too had encountered a similar problem, as had Andreas Mikkelsen in the Korean manufacturer’s third car.
“It looks like my team-mates are facing similar issues,” Neuville confirmed. “We are going to work on it – the guys know what to do and what the problem is.”
Tänak described the issue by saying: “When we are lifting, it’s full gas.”
Sébastien Ogier made it two Toyotas inside the top three, although he trailed Evans by a sizeable 21.6sec. Running fourth compared with Evans’ first in the starting order meant the nine-time Rallye Monte-Carlo winner was disadvantaged by dirtier road conditions caused by those ahead cutting corners.
A frustrated Tänak ended the evening 1.2sec further back, while M-Sport Ford hotshot Adrien Fourmaux delivered an impressive drive despite his lack of regular Rally1 experience. Sitting fifth and 39.0sec adrift of the top spot, Fourmaux headed both Takamoto Katsuta and Grégoire Munster, while Mikkelsen languished in eighth as a result of his problems.
One of the star performances came from Spain’s Pepe López, who placed ninth overall and led the WRC2 category despite driving an unfamiliar Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 with new co-driver David Vázquez alongside him. He won both stages to head Nikolay Gryazin by 14.2sec.
The action resumes on Friday with six stages near the host town of Gap. Two loops of three tests add up to over 105km of competition.
Leading positions after Thursday:
1. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris 26m 12.9s
2. T Neuville / Martijn Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +15.1s
3. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +21.6s
4. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N +22.8s
5. A Fourmaux / A Coria FRA Ford Puma +39.0s
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Hyundai i20 N +46.3s