Sébastien Loeb claimed a clean sweep of Rallye Monte-Carlo’s Friday morning speed tests to charge into the lead of the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship
The 47-year-old Frenchman, who scored the last of his seven Monte wins in 2013, turned back the clock in his all-new hybrid-powered Ford Puma to outpace Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans in an absorbing morning.
Loeb trailed arch-rival Ogier after last night’s short opening leg, but turned the tables during the three mountain special stages in the French Alps. He reached the tyre change zone in Puget-Théniers with a 10.6sec advantage over Evans’ Toyota GR Yaris.
Ogier was a further 2.4sec back in another GR Yaris after a cautious drive on frosty roads in the morning’s final test from Val-de-Chalvagne to Entrevaux yielded almost 16sec to Loeb, allowing the Puma pilot to pounce.
“I was pushing really hard all morning,” Loeb admitted. “It was tricky with the ice, in some places we had a lot of grip but in others there was nothing. I have a good feeling with the car and I tried to be flat out from start to end.”
Evans was not at ease with his new car in the tricky conditions, but second fastest time in Entrevaux propelled the Welshman into second, despite a slow puncture after sliding wide at a hairpin.
Ogier admitted his choice of Pirelli’s soft and super soft asphalt tyres was a compromise choice, but he held sway until the frost and ice persuaded him to take no risks.
Thierry Neuville was 40.2sec off the pace in fourth in a Hyundai i20 N. The Belgian’s morning improved after an eye-opening first stage which he described as ‘a nightmare’. “I’ve never been so scared while driving,” he said.
Craig Breen was 5.8sec behind in sixth in another Puma. The Irishman reckoned he was driving at about 70 per cent of the car’s potential but that was enough to keep him clear of Ott Tänak’s i20 N.
Problems with the car’s hybrid system slowed the Estonian, but he headed Gus Greensmith by 8.2sec. Greensmith held a strong fourth until hybrid troubles of his own in the final test dropped him to seventh.
Takamoto Katsuta, Kalle Rovanperä and Oliver Solberg completed the leaderboard. A spin and smoke inside his i20 N’s cockpit delayed Solberg.
Adrien Fourmaux was fourth overnight but the Frenchman crashed his Puma down a ravine in the opening Roure – Beuil test. He and co-driver Alex Coria escaped injury, a testament to the new enhanced safety cell chassis introduced this year.