Finally, some action! Credit where credit is due: Sébastien Loeb, the 9-time world rally champion and 7-time a winner in the Principality, set the very first best time of the hybrid era in the WRC, during his first run on Thursday, in the shakedown, driving his brand new Ford Puma Hybrid Rally1 entered by the British M-Sport team. But he was finally beaten by half a second, on the third and final run, by the other Sébastien, the implacable Ogier, in his Toyota Yaris.
This shakedown was 2.29 kms long, on a pretty little road that took the 11 priority drivers to the small village of Peille, on the heights of Monaco. “It doesn’t mean much, because it’s only the shakedown, but it confirms the good feeling we had during private testing (in December)”, Loeb summarized. He starts this new adventure with a new co-driver, Isabelle Galmiche. And he was encouraged, this Thursday morning in Peille, by the most faithful lieutenant of his glory days: Dani Sordo, who this year will share the wheel of the 3rd Hyundai i20 N with Oliver Solberg, son of the 2003 world champion. On his second run, Loeb did it again: best time, gaining two seconds: 1:51.8 instead of 1:53.9, and half a second better than Ogier, 8-time world champion and 8-time a Monte Carlo winner (including his 2009 win, during the IRC period). Not bad for a 47-year-old who has not driven in WRC since Turkey in 2020 (3rd position) and who has just spent two weeks in the Saudi desert, to climb once again on the podium of the Dakar rally (2nd ). He is still very sharp.
On the 3rd run, on an increasingly fast road, in ideal conditions, the reigning world champion restored some order: best time of the morning, in 1:50.4, that’s half a second better than Loeb’s Ford and one full second better than his Toyota team-mate, Welshman Elfyn Evans.
Another candidate for victory, quite logically, will be Thierry Neuville (Hyundai), 4th time between Sainte-Agnès and Peille. The 2020 winner of the “Monte-Carl” (15 wins in WRC, 50 podiums, six times on the final podium of the championship since 2013), will watch closely, once again, the expected duel between the two absolute WRC masters (17 world crowns between them).
At Ford M-Sport, Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux started well his first full season in the WRC, with a 5th time (1:53.0 all round, on the 3rd run) behind Ogier, Loeb, Evans and Neuville, and ahead of all the others. With the added bonus of a very funny question asked on his official Twitter account, between two runs in the shakedown: “How old was the oldest winner in WRC? I’m asking for a friend…” FYI, the current record stands since 1990 and the win of a famous and very fast Swede, Bjorn Waldegard, then aged 46, at the Safari Rally, in a Toyota Celica.
At Hyundai, Ott Tänak, the 2019 world champion, chose to spend the morning with soft Pirelli tires only, which was not the right choice to shine in this shakedown: his best run is the 10th in the morning, out of 11 priority drivers, and four seconds behind Ogier’s best time. But that was just the shakedown, so no need to jump to premature conclusions.
For the record, this shakedown in full sun also allowed Mario Isola, the boss of the Pirelli competition department, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Italian brand in style, by driving from Sainte-Agnès to Peille in an antique Lancia 037 rally. On his side, a very special co-driver for a day: Peter Solberg.
The 50th season of the WRC, but the first of the hybrid era, is now underway. The official opening will be set on Casino Square, from 6.45 p.m. Then the first two special stages will be broadcasted live on Canal+ this evening: SS1, Lucéram-Lantosque (15.2 km) from 8:18 p.m., then SS2, between La Bollène-Vésubie and Moulinet (23.25 km), from 9:31 p.m. The first car to set off will be Ogier’s Toyota Yaris, with number 1 on the doors. Green light!