Reigning WRC world champion Sébastien Ogier picked up where he left off last year with victory in the 2014 season opener in the classic rally setting of Monte Carlo – but it was far from plain sailing for the Frenchman.
Against the backdrop of devilishly unpredictable conditions in the principality, there were surprises at every turn as the new season got underway in thrilling fashion. Perhaps the biggest of these came in the form of privateer Bryan Bouffier, who pulled out a stunning drive to pilot his Ford Fiesta RS WRC to second overall, after having led the rally outright until midway through day two. The top three was completed by Citroën’s Kris Meeke, another significant result, as the Northern Irishman became the first Brit to achieve a podium finish in WRC since Colin McRae in 2003
Despite taking the eventual spoils, Ogier was forced to draw on all of his world championship-winning expertise after a disastrous opening day. Rally Monte Carlo is infamous for its continuously changing weather conditions, with rain in the valleys and slush and snow at altitude, and this unpredictability always places a greater emphasis on tyre selection. True to form, at the 82nd edition of the historic event, choice of rubber was the decisive factor. Almost the entire field was wrong-footed by the unexpected arrival of heavy snow at the start line, turning the first loop of stages in to a winter wonderland. All three Volkswagen Polo R’s were especially hindered by their choice of virtually tread-free slicks for the first three tests and by stage 4, Ogier was languishing back in ninth place, having narrowly avoided an embarrassing exit on the first corner of stage 1 when he collided with a wall.
However, whilst the German team were finding the going tough, WRC new boys Hyundai endured an even more miserable first day. Returning to the series for the first time since 2003, the Korean squad’s comeback lasted only a matter of hours as both i20 WRC’s were out of the running by stage 5. Lead driver Thierry Neuville slid off just 7km in to the first test and teammate Dani Sordo quickly followed suit with terminal electrical problems on the road section before stage 5. Under Monte regulations, neither car was allowed to restart, meaning Hyundai draw a blank on their return to the WRC. Whilst Neuville’s accident came as a result of driver error in extremely hostile conditions, team principle Michel Nandan will be more concerned over the reliability issues that ended Sordo’s weekend. In the modern era, where mechanical failures are becoming less and less frequent, Hyundai team bosses will be hoping that this particular problem is purely an isolated incident.
A look at the top of the leader board after day one only served to intensify Hyundai’s frustrations. While the big guns all struggled in the white stuff, privateer Fiesta driver Bouffier took the initiative and romped to the top of the leader board, ending day one 38.8 seconds up on closest challenger Meeke. Ironically, Bouffier was part of the three-strong 2013 development team that helped to prepare the Hyundai i20 WRC for competitive action but failed to win himself a seat in the 2014 squad. He held on to the lead valiantly until stage 9 when a resurgent Ogier wrestled away top spot, but further consistent driving allowed him to hold off Meeke and cement a well-deserved second place.
Just as Ogier took what turned out to be an unassailable lead, it was the end of the road for Robert Kobica. The M-Sport pilot had fought well early on, winning the opening two stages, but crashed his Fiesta in to a ditch whilst chasing down Meeke for third on stage 9.
The Pole’s misfortune promoted Mads Østberg’s Citroën DS3 WRC to fourth place, where he remained until the finish, securing a positive overall result for the French team.
Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala, who at one point found himself in a lowly eighteenth position, overcame a puncture on day two and produced a steady comeback thereafter to end the rally fifth overall. He also bagged three bonus points for going fastest on the power stage.
The second British representative, Elfyn Evans, guided his Fiesta RS WRC to an impressive sixth but there was no such luck for his M-Sport teammate Mikko Hirvonen who was forced to retire with an alternator failure halfway through the final stage, having only just climbed above the young Welshman.
Volkswagen number three Anreas Mikkelsen was engaged in a tight battle with both M-Sport drivers on day two but hit an icy patch on stage 10 causing him to slide off. Despite the help of nearby spectators, the Norwegian lost over four minutes getting back on the road and ended the rally down in seventh.
Reflecting on the rally, all parties, barring Hyundai who remain somewhat of an unknown quantity, can take plenty of positives from their results on what was an extremely testing 2014 curtain raiser. However, one man will have a broader smile than most heading in to round two in Sweden on February 5th. New season, new beginnings, but still the same man to beat; Sébastien Ogier is not about to relinquish his WRC crown easily in 2014.