Whatever Thierry Neuville ate for breakfast this morning, it must have included very big brave pills. The final day of the FIA World Rally Championship’s season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo was electric with excitement. Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul took their Hyundai Shell Mobis i20 Coupe WRC to victory after a thrilling final four stages on Sunday after a daring fight on the slippery slopes of the French Alps.
The Belgians dominated the top spot of stage times on all four speed tests today, outpacing their rivals to jump from a 6.4s overnight deficit while lying in third place to win the Rallye Monte-Carlo for the first time with a margin of 12.6s over Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Gazoo Racing) and 14.3s ahead of the Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Gazoo Racing).
With melting snow and ice making the narrow lanes treacherously slippery, the racing today took in the famous Col de Turini and the Power Stage for a battle that will be difficult to match in 2020. Tyre choice, as with all other days on this unique event, played a critical role in the outcome of the rally: selecting the right tyres, mixing corners with different compounds, and running without studded tyres, made for big gambles and great rewards. Adding to that, competitors contested the four stages and 63.54km on just the one set of tyres they started with that morning. The Power Stage – and its bonus points on offer – also added more intrigue to the plot: who would sacrifice a few seconds of pace in each preceding stage to mount an all-out attack for the extra Championship points?
Neuville cleverly managed his tyres and his pace. Smoothest of the WRC drivers from stage one this weekend, the Belgian seemed cool and confident in the car and on stage times. His rivals, Ogier and Evans, were simply unable to find the extra tenths of seconds that the Belgian managed to stump up for the final day from his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC. A brave drive and a well-deserved victory.
Neuville commented after the final stage: “We had an incredible feeling the last couple of days and we were able to catch back the time. We have been chasing this win for a while but we showed our performance this weekend and it’s a great way to start the season.”
His march to the top step of the podium was bold and daring. Stalking the Toyota Yaris WRC crews for the previous three days and 240km of stages, Neuville’s vice-like pressure on Ogier and Evans worked rewarded him: he first overtook Ogier for second place on the first stage of the morning and trailed the leader Evans by 1.4s. He then blitzed Stage 14 to move into the lead with a 4.0s advantage over Evans. Stage 15 saw the Belgian stretch his lead to 11s over Evans, with Ogier right behind. In the final stage, the Belgian managed to win the Power Stage to take the overall victory, while Ogier managed to move ahead of Evans for second place overall.
Ogier commented: “I think we can be happy with the start of the season and starting with a podium with the new team is very good. There is some way to go to extract all of the potential from this car but I really enjoyed it.”
With a six-times World Rally Champions breathing down on them, Evans and Martin showed their mettle this weekend and marked themselves as potential rally winners in 2020.
The Welshman commented: “We were happy until last night – I can’t say I have been happy today. It never really clicked really and I’m not sure of the reason. There’s some work to do but overall a positive weekend.”
This three-way battle for the overall lead brought with it incredibly close racing action and showed that the 2020 WRC season will hold many surprises in store. All three never once relented or lifted their foot off the accelerator pedal: on the final stage, Ogier and Neuville tied for the stage win such is each driver’s hunger for victory.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Hyundai Shell Mobis) struggled on the wrong tyres today, losing grip in the slower sections of the final two stages resulting in the nine-times WRC champions cautiously pick their lines and lower their attacking speed to reach the finish unscathed. This pairing dropped from fourth overall to sixth, promoting a hard-charging Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (M-Sport Ford World Rally Team) and Toyota Gazoo Racing’s 19-year-old boy wonder Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen.
Had Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai Shell Mobis) not retired from the event after their big crash on Friday morning, would the winner and podium have been different? The Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC and Toyota Yaris WRC seem rather evenly matched on this event’s tricky roads and conditions. With the majority of fastest stage times and two podium results in the bag, the Toyota Yaris WRCs are taking the Manufacturers’ championship fight very seriously in 2020.
Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën C3 R5) recovered from early mishaps in the Rally Monte-Carlo to convincingly win the WRC2 category by 3min31.4s from Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (Ford Fiesta R5 MkII) and Nikolay Gryazin/Jaroslav Federov (Hyundai i20 R5).
Said Ostberg at the finish: “It was a good weekend so I wanted to enjoy the last stage. We came here to win and I think we have proved that we could win – we were faster than everyone. We win our category, we are leading the championship and we are happy!”
The FIA World Rally Championship next moves to Rally Sweden on 13-16 February for the calendar’s only snow event.
Stage 13 – Top 5:
01) T. Neuville – 11m 24.1s; 02) E. Evans +5.0s; 03) S. Ogier +6.2s; 04) E. Lappi +11.6s; 05) T. Suninen +14.5s
Stage 14 – Top 5:
01) T. Neuville – 9m 47.9s; 02) E. Evans +5.4s; 03) S. Ogier +6.5s; 04) T. Suninen +12.2s; 05) E. Lappi +12.9s
Stage 15 – Top 5:
01) T. Neuville – 11m 25.1s; 02) S. Ogier +1.4s; 03) E. Lappi +6.3s; 04) E. Evans +7.1s; 05) K. Rovanperä + 8.9s
Stage 16 – Top 5:
01) T. Neuville – 9m 39.0; 02) S. Ogier +0.0s; 03) T. Suninen +2.1; 04) E. Evans +3.2s; 05) E. Lappi +6.2s
01) T. Neuville/N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) – 03h 10m 57.6s
02) S. Ogier/J. Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC) +12.6s
03) E. Evans/S. Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC) +14.3s
04) E. Lappi/J. Ferm (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +3m 09.0s
05) K. Rovanperä/J. Halttunen (Toyota Yaris WRC) +4m 17.2s
06) S. Loeb/D. Elena (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +5m 04.7s
07) T. Katusta/D. Barritt (Toyota Yaris WRC) +11m 27.9s
08) T. Suninen/J. Lehtinen (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +13m 30.4s
09) E. Camilli/F. Buresi (Citroën C3 R5) +13m 42.2s
10) M. Ostberg/T. Eriksen (Citroën C3 R5) +14m21.8s