Maybe it is, as the old line about the French Revolution goes, “too early to tell” whether World Champion Sébastien Ogier was wobbly, or just plain cautious on the first day of the Monte Carlo Rally, his first the defence of his 2013 title.
Because Seb’s strategy, his skill, his sheer bloomin’ pace on day two and on a horribly tricky third day which saw one stage cancelled altogether, suggests Ogier, co-driver Julien Ingrassia and the Volkswagen Polo R WRC will again take a lot of beating this year.
The team won nine of the 13 rallies in last year’s championship, and of the four he didn’t win, two were won by Sébastien Loeb and included the Monte. Now there’s no Loeb, who really can stop Ogier?
Well, Bryan Bouffier had a jolly good go. ‘Bryan who?’ you ask. Bouffier’s a bit of star on the European rally scene, winning national championships and some classics including the Tour de Corse and the Monte — but crucially not as WRC events.
He did start last year’s Monte in a Citroen DS3, as part of a WRC campaign that fizzled after three rounds. This year he’s back, having switched his private Citroen for a M-Sport Fiesta. And whoever is backing him will have enjoyed a good Cognac on Saturday evening; Bouffier is second in the WRC after the first round.
That doesn’t mean Ford sits second, however, as Bouffier is not a nominated first team driver. For Ford, those are returning hero Mikko Hirvonen, who didn’t have a great rally and retired on the last day, and Welshman Elfyn Evans who did, finishing sixth on his full works WRC debut in conditions that caught out many with more experience. But for the flying Bouffier, Evans would have notched up his first WRC stage win on his first day on the championship.
As the drivers struggled with soft tyres on slushy, icy and sometimes snowy roads, the Fiesta seemed the car to have as Robert Kubica took his privately run Fiesta to two stage wins and the overall lead.
Indeed, Kubica was sitting fourth and just a minute off the lead when the ex-F1 driver dropped the Fiesta into a ditch just after lunch on day two. M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson has already said he expects Kubica to be winning by the time the WRC moves towards tarmac rallies later in the year.
Citroen, who had given Kubica his WRC debut on the Wales Rally GB last year, but passed up on the chance to sign him, will be wondering if they made the right call. Kris Meeke, the Irishman who did get the drive, erred on the side of caution, but third on his debut for the team will keep them happy, and fifth for teammate Mads Østberg behind Ogier’s VW teammate Jari-Matti Latvala keeps Citroen in touch.
Where they will need to be, as Hyundai has hinted its new i20 contender may well have the pace to keep the Polo honest. Sure, neither Korean car finished, but Thierry Neuville’s speed on the first four miles of the first stage suggested the i20 could have what it needs.
After the very first split Neuville was ahead; shortly after he was on his roof. Dani Sordo, like Meeke a refugee from the Mini programme, is Neuville’s teammate for the snowy events and was running third (behind Bouffier and Meeke) when he retired with battery issues after stage four on Day One.
Right now, it’s hard to see Ogier as Loeb’s true successor. Everyone made the same mistakes on Day One, yet it was Ogier who seemed least able to make up for the rubber’s unsuitability, even hitting a wall at the very first turn. Kubica had no such problems, and Bouffier, Evans, Sordo and Meeke all got a chance to prove they have the speed. Only Neuville, arguably rallying’s new star, didn’t. Not on the Monte. But he and the others now have two weeks to prepare for Sweden. If Ogier wants to be the next Loeb, he’s going to have to work for it.