Monte Carlo WRC: Tanak stars in opening stages
The Estonian claimed victory on both of the first two stages as he returned to an event that saw him fly 40 metres down a mountainside in 2020.
Tyres were the major talking point of the day, with Pirelli replacing Michelin as the WRC’s new control supplier.
A shortage of pre-event testing in the truncated close season caused many teams to run conservatively; all the more so as no Shakedown was permitted under the tight enforcement of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Haute Alps prefecture.
It is understood that the Italian rubber has less grip in wet and snowy conditions, but this escalates considerably whenever the road dries.
Wet roads fringed with snow were far from optimum, therefore, but Tanak is a man on a mission to reclaim the title and wanted to capitalise on any hesitancy among his rivals.
At the start of his second season in Hyundai’s i20 WRC, Tanak felt considerably more at ease than at this time in 2020.
“For sure the car has a lot more stability than last year and I have definitely better feedback from the car,” said the 2019 drivers’ champion, who found no problems arising from the unfamiliar rubber.
“Well, in just wet conditions they really have some grip and they seem to have good performance but other places, when you hit some mud, the step is quite big,” he said.
Keeping closest to Tanak’s pace was Toyota’s young Finnish star, Kalle Rovanpera, who sits five seconds in front of his British teammate Elfyn Evans as the crews go into their first overnight halt.
Reigning champion Sebastien Ogier suffered a serious accident in pre-event testing which limited his experience of the new rubber, and his performance was further blunted by an unnerving intermittent brake problem.
“I have, like we mentioned, very little experience with these tyres and I needed to get a little bit of a feeling. Then mid-stage suddenly on the brake I had the pedal going completely to the bottom and no brake at all,” said Ogier.
“So it was pretty scary moment, luckily uphill, and I could pump enough and stop the car before the corner but, of course, after that my confidence went completely down and I was pumping all the time.
“It happens a couple of times during the stage so the rest of the loop was freaky.”
Ogier holds fifth place overnight, behind the Hyundai of Thierry Neuville, joined for the first time by a new co-driver, Martijn Wydaeghe, who was only recruited last week after salary negotiations broke down with Neuville’s long-standing partner, Nicolas Gilsoul.
“It was pretty new for Martijn in the car, the cars are going quite fast and we didn’t know what to expect to be honest because we had no shakedown and no testing together,” said Neuville.
“We were at the finish, that was our main target for today.”
One man who missed the ‘cautious approach’ memo was M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen, whose Ford Fiesta WRC was right on the pace of Tanak in the first two sectors of the opening stage.
The flying Finn then got caught out by a 90-degree right-hander, understeering into an earth bank and being pitched into a roll which ended up in the trees halfway down a hillside.
With a broken roll cage resulting from his off, the unhappy Finn will not restart and M-Sport’s team principal, Richard Millener, was far from amused.
“I feel most sorry for the team to be honest,” Millener seethed. “We worked so hard for the last four weeks to come here, we spent four days testing and that’s how we’re rewarded.
“It’s great to set that kind of time but the intention was to get two cars to the finish and we’ve not even managed that on one stage.
“So after everything we’ve done to get here, it’s a pretty big kick in the teeth really.”
Some measure of cheer was brought to the Cumbrian squad by the performance of its French prodigy, Adrien Fourmaux, in the team’s WRC2 entry.
A dominant second stage time saw Fourmaux almost three seconds faster than Gus Greensmith in the team’s second full WRC car.
“I had a very clean drive in this stage, I was enjoying a lot,” Fourmaux said. “It was very tricky stage, honestly, the grip was changing everywhere, some snow are coming on the road sometimes. It was a proper Monte Carlo stage.”
The youngster’s time hoisted him to second in WRC2 behind the Skoda of former WRC star Andreas Mikkelsen, who spent 2020 developing this year’s Pirelli compounds, and wants to use the second tier category as a springboard back into the big league.
Russian driver Nikolay Gryazin holds third place in WRC2 at the wheel of his privateer VW Polo, just ahead of the man who took his seat for 2021 at Hyundai, Oliver Solberg.
In WRC3, Citroen ended the day with a 1-2-3 lockout for its French drivers Yohan Rossel, Nicolas Ciamin and Yoann Bonato.
COVID-19 curfew regulations must be strictly adhered to, requiring an early finish to each day and precipitating a very early start to the second day’s action, with the first stage getting underway at 06:10 local time.