Reigning Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion Juho Hanninen leads the 2011 season-opener in Monte Carlo after the first two stages, over half a minute ahead of Stephane Sarrazin.
In unusually dry and straightforward conditions, Peugeot driver Sarrazin was quickest on SS1, Le Moulinon to Antraigues, by just 0.3sec over Hanninen's Skoda.
But as Sarrazin struggled slightly with his soft tires on the following Burzet to St Martial stage, Hanninen charged into a massive 35.6sec lead, having won SS2 by 15.1sec.
"I had a good rhythm so I let it come. The car is behaving very well now," said Hanninen.
While Hanninen is in a class of his own, the chasing pack are closely matched. Sarrazin and Hanninen had been 20sec clear of their rivals on SS1, but Petter Solberg (Solberg Peugeot) and Freddy Loix (Skoda) picked up their pace with second and third-fastest times on SS2, bringing them up from fifth and sixth to third and fourth, respectively.
Solberg put his improvement down to growing familiarity with the Peugeot 207.
"You have to remember I haven't driven the car in the dry, only in the wet," he said. "I just have to learn to get into the rhythm with it."
Peugeot pair Guy Wilks and Bryan Bouffier are less than a second apart in fifth and sixth, followed by Jan Kopecky's works Skoda.
Returnee Francois Delecour has made an excellent start to his comeback and is currently eighth, just 5sec behind 2010 IRC runner-up Kopecky.
"Not bad, not bad," said Delecour. "I am getting a bit faster and I am learning the car. It's not easy because the young drivers are also going very fast. It's very dry, maybe the snow will suit me more."
Skoda UK's new signing Andreas Mikkelsen is already out. The Norwegian clipped a wall just a few corners onto SS1 and could not get the damaged wheel off his Skoda so had to limp through most of the 36.87-kilometer stage with a puncture. He lost over nine minutes and retired afterward due to the extent of his suspension damage.
Mikkelsen was not the only driver in trouble on the opening stage. Former IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz dropped three and a quarter minutes after stopping to change a damaged tire on his Skoda, while Henning Solberg also suffered a puncture on his Ford – and was adamant that the rubber had failed without him hitting anything. The WRC regular lost just over four minutes.
Both Proton's Chris Atkinson and Peugeot Belgium's Thierry Neuville stopped on SS1, with following crews reporting crashes for both men.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Juho Hanninen Skoda 46m15.5s
2. Stephane Sarrazin Peugeot + 35.6s
3. Freddy Loix Skoda + 41.7s
4. Petter Solberg Peugeot + 44.6s
5. Guy Wilks Peugeot + 51.5s
6. Bryan Bouffier Peugeot + 52.3s
7. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 1m04.6s
8. Francois Delecour Peugeot + 1m09.9s
9. Giandomenico Basso Peugeot + 1m22.2s
10. Bruno Magalhaes Peugeot + 1m36.3s