Mikko Hirvonen has given the new Ford S2000 car a surprising early lead after the opening two stages of the Monte Carlo Rally.
The World Rally Championship runner-up was fastest on the first stage by 0.4sec over Skoda's Juho Hanninen, and although both lost time to their pursuers on SS2, Hirvonen was still quick enough to maintain the overall lead. He currently holds the top spot by 4.3sec over last year's winner Sebastien Ogier.
"It's been OK, but now we can see that it's the early stages with the car," said Hirvonen at the end of SS2. "It's very difficult to drive in places, so it's a real fight to get through. But when everything works, the car is very fast."
Peugeot duo Ogier and Stephane Sarrazin hold second and third at present, with Hanninen now back in fourth after two stages in the damp, foggy and sometimes snowy conditions.
"For this stage the tire was not the best but I think I lost less than I expected," said the Finn. "But it's difficult even for us to select the best tire every time."
Hanninen's teammate Jan Kopecky's rally got off to a disastrous start when he lost nearly four minutes with a puncture on SS1, while Nicolas Vouilloz is running sixth in a third Skoda. Reigning Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion Kris Meeke (Peugeot UK) made a cautious start and currently holds fifth place.
"I'm happy – I drove OK, but when it's foggy in this rally you don't take any risks," said Meeke. "The tactic is when it gets dangerous we don't take any risks, and for me the fog in here is dangerous."
Fellow Briton Guy Wilks (Skoda UK) has struggled so far and is already 2m49s behind the leaders.
"I just don't feel comfortable with the setup," Wilks admitted. "It's very tricky conditions with snow and ice, especially in the first stage. I'm just struggling with confidence but we need to work on that because we can't lose time like this."
Toni Gardemeister is a frustrated seventh in the Astra Abarth, having struggled to get grip on slick tires and taken a quick trip off the road at a corner where he felt spectators had placed snow on the course.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 47m05.5s
2. Sebastien Ogier Peugeot + 4.3s
3. Stephane Sarrazin Peugeot + 18.8s
4. Juho Hanninen Skoda + 32.5s
5. Kris Meeke Peugeot + 43.2s
6. Nicolas Vouilloz Skoda + 54.0s
7. Toni Gardemeister Abarth + 1m05.7s
8. Bruno Magalhaes Peugeot + 1m14.1s
9. Franz Wittmann Peugeot + 1m57.6s
10. Guy Wilks Skoda + 2m49.5s