Elfyn Evans leads the FIA World Championship’s season-opening Monte Carlo Rally after Friday’s leg, but is under increasing pressure from his Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Sebastien Ogier.
Welshman Evans (above) is one of the favorites to land the 2024 title, thanks to reigning champ and Toyota teammate Kalle Rovanpera electing to run only a limited program this season. But his prospects of starting the year with a victory on the WRC’s most storied event are far from certain with nine-time winner Ogier on a charge.
Evans had been 21.6s clear of Ogier’s similar GR Yaris Rally 1 after Thursday’s pair of curtain-raising night stages, but Ogier is now looming large in the Welshman’s rearview mirror after a stunning drive over the French Alps roads near Gap saw him reduce that deficit down to just 4.5s at the end of the leg
The Frenchman won two of Friday morning’s three stages and climbed from third to second after Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville spun his i20 N Rally in the day’s second test.
Ogier, who is also running only a limited program for Toyota in 2024, had moved to within 10.7s of Evans by the day’s midpoint, with the bulk of the time being gained over the 11.38-mile, ice patch-effected stage from La Breole to Selonnet.
The Toyota duo were closely matched for much of the repeated afternoon loop, but it was again at La Bréole/Selonnet — held in darkness on its second, leg-closing run — where Ogier shone, outpacing Evans by 4.1s to set up a showdown going into Saturday’s penultimate leg.
Sebastien Ogier is in attack mode, now trailing rally leader and Toyota teammate Elfyn Evans by just 4.5s. Toyota GAZOO Racing WRT photo
“It was a difficult start to the rally, but we expected that with our start position,” said Gap-born Ogier, who started fourth on the road, making for dirtier conditions than lead-off man Evans, but is looking for a record-stretching 10th win on his home event. “Now I am glad that we managed to be very close — tomorrow will be fun.”
Evans, who was never outside the top three times on any of the opening eight stages, admitted that conditions had been difficult to read.
“It never gets easier, this rally,” he explained. “[The last stage was] very difficult in the dark. I had a lot of information, but I couldn’t see a lot of it, to be honest — I just had to trust it. It’s very difficult to read the conditions on the road. I’m happy to get through today without any issues.”
Neuville’s Hyundai remained very much in the fight at the sharp end, too, trailing Ogier by 11.6s in third. The Belgian won three of Friday’s six special stages and enjoyed a trouble-free run aside from his early-morning spin.
Third-placed Thierry Neuville is 11.6s behind Ogier’s Toyota after winning three of Friday’s stages. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Ott Tanak, who’s back with Hyundai after a single season with M-Sport Ford, was lucky to end the day only 57.5s further back in fourth after ice on a right-hander sent his i20 N Rally1 sliding into a ditch during the morning’s opening test. It took spectators only 40s to push the Estonian back on to the road. M-Sport Ford’s Gregoire Munster and Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta also went off at the same location, with the latter dropping more than five minutes.
Adrien Fourmaux repaid M-Sport Ford’s faith in him by delivering an impressive third-best time in the morning’s third stage. The 28-year-old Frenchman is returning to the WRC’s top level having contested WRC2 for M-Sport in 2023, and he completed the top five aboard a Puma Rally1.
Andreas Mikkelsen, also returning to the WRC’s top class for the first time since 2019, ended the day more than one minute back from Fourmaux in sixth overall. Driving a Hyundai, the Norwegian found it difficult to trust the information in his pace notes with surface conditions changing constantly. He’s 28.2s ahead of the seventh-placed Munster.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Nikolay Gryazin is heading a three-way fight for supremacy, besting Pepe Lopez on Friday’s final stage to secure the overnight lead by just 1.3s.
Starting Friday with a 14.2s advantage following a formidable effort in his Skoda Fabia RS on Thursday’s two night stages, Lopez saw his lead vanish in changeable conditions on Friday morning. Possibly unsettled by the challenges faced by top-level cars further up the road, the 28-year-old Spaniard opted for a more cautious approach.
In stark contrast, Gryazin threw caution to the wind in his first WRC start in a Citroen C3 Rally2, going 16.1s quicker than Lopez to seize the lead. However, after regaining the confidence he’d displayed the evening before, Lopez reclaimed the lead before midday by setting the fastest time on the morning’s remaining stages.
Repeating his performance from the morning’s opening run at St-Leger-les-Melezes/La Batie-Neuve, Gryazin once again took back the top spot only to lose 5.6s to Lopez on the day’s penultimate stage. However, Gryazin swiftly retaliated, going 4.3s quicker than anyone else as darkness descended and retaking the lead to set the stage for a tense Saturday.
Nikolay Gryazin (ABOVE) enjoyed a back-and-forth battle with Pepe Lopez for the WRC2 lead. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Completing the top three after a strong Friday showing was 2023 WRC2 winner and Gryazin’s teammate Yvan Rossel. The Frenchman is only 4.9s behind second-placed Lopez, with everything still to play for.
Saturday brings another full-on schedule with Esparron/Ozenet launching the day at 08.05 local time. Les Nonieres/Chichilianne and Pellafol/Agnieres-en-Devoluy follow before the trio are repeated in the afternoon, bringing the day’s total competitive distance to 74.81 miles.
WRC Monte Carlo Rally, positions after Leg One, SS8
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h25m28.9s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4.5s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +16.1s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m13.6s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +1m38.0s
6 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m58.9s
7 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +3m27.1s
8 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +5m18.9s
9 Pepe Lopez/David Vazquez (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +5m20.2s
10 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +5m25.1s
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