The Toyotas took the initiative in the first stage of the Saturday morning loop. Elfyn Evans set the best time in La Colle-Saint-Michel (16.8 km), his first in this rally, enough to take a handful of seconds from Sébastien Loeb (Ford Puma), still in the lead for a handful of seconds (6.5 ahead of Ogier), but who will have to resist the Toyotas throughout the day.
“It wasn’t a perfect stage for me. I think my two super-soft tyres didn’t help me,” the leader of the 90th Monte-Carlo Rally said, at the end of the stage. A few minutes earlier, in the privacy of the cockpit, he had summed up the situation perfectly: “I couldn’t find the rhythm. Neither did you, by the way…”, he calmly slipped to his new team-mate, Isabelle Galmiche. Promising for the future, because a frustrated Loeb generally goes faster in the next stage.
By taking 7.3 seconds from Loeb in this SS9 between Le Fugeret and Thorame-Haute, east of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the Welshman got back into the fight for the win, less than 15 seconds behind Loeb, as he also took 3.9 seconds from his teammate Sébastien Ogier: “I’m not happy with the car, my hybrid doesn’t help me”, confided Ogier, a little disappointed with his 3rd time, behind Evans and surprising youngster Kalle Rovanperä (2nd). Three Toyotas in the first three spots, in order to put maximum pressure on Loeb, 7th in this SS9.
Seven, like the number of victories in Monaco for the Alsatian whose first participation dates back to 2001, at the wheel of a Citroën Saxo. And who this weekend, aboard his Ford Puma, became the oldest driver to ever lead a world championship rally, beating the record held for three decades by Swede Bjorn Waldegard, winner of the Safari Rally in 1990, at age 46, in a Toyota Celica.
In what needs to be called the second group, the fight will pit two Hyundai drivers against two Ford drivers on Saturday. On one side, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak, victim of a slow puncture in SS9, who started with only one spare wheel this morning, in order to be lighter. On the other side, Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith who gave Friday, after the first best time of his WRC career, a plausible explanation for the interest aroused by this 90th edition, the first of the hybrid WRC era: “It’s hard to put into words how amazing this Ford Puma is!”. Ford and M-Sport have worked well in the past few months, in Banbury, and it shows.