Sebastien Ogier is bringing himself back into contention for Monte Carlo Rally victory after a commanding win on the first stage of the final day.
Mikko Hirvonen continues to lead the rally for Ford, with Ogier's Peugeot in third place. But the Frenchman won SS11 by 18 seconds, bringing him to within 4 seconds of second-placed Juho Hanninen (Skoda), and putting him 48 seconds behind Hirvonen with four stages to go – leaving the leader concerned.
"I've tried. I think we lost most of the time on snow," said Hirvonen. "I just couldn't drive any faster. If there's lots of snow and ice [tonight] we're going to be struggling, but I'll try."
Hanninen was also frustrated to lose time to Ogier. "Not such a good time for us on that stage," said the Skoda driver. "I was hoping for better. I don't know, that's not good."
Ogier, though, reckoned he could have gone faster still. "I started the stage too slowly," he admitted. "But then after five kilometers I started to push."
Ogier's performance this morning ended his battle with Skoda's Nicolas Vouilloz, who is now over a minute behind in fourth.
"That was difficult," said Vouilloz. "We didn't drive so well, I'm still sleeping – I just tried to make no mistakes, but I wasn't fast."
Guy Wilks showed much improved form on SS11 as he settled into his Skoda UK car. Second fastest behind Ogier on the stage, he vaulted from seventh to fifth, ahead of the struggling Stephane Sarrazin (Peugeot).
"It is not going well, I can't feel the car," said Sarrazin. "I cannot push, I'm really stressed and I don't feel great, so I'm really slow."
Bruno Magalhaes also had a tough time on the snowy and icy stage and has fallen to ninth behind Jan Kopecky's Skoda – although just 50sec covers fifth to ninth positions at present after three and a half hours of rallying.
Toni Gardemeister's eventful rally has come to an end, the Astra team asking him to park his Abarth before the stage start due to engine damage related to one of his incidents yesterday afternoon.
SS11 was the only one to be held this morning, with the competitors now setting off on a long liaison section to bring them back to Monte Carlo. The rally does not resume until tonight, when the deciding four stages take place in darkness, finishing just before midnight.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 3h36m24.8s
2. Juho Hanninen Skoda + 44.1s
3. Sebastien Ogier Peugeot + 48.0s
4. Nicolas Vouilloz Skoda + 1m56.5s
5. Guy Wilks Skoda + 7m03.4s
6. Stephane Sarrazin Peugeot + 7m17.9s
7. Franz Wittmann Peugeot + 7m25.0s
8. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 7m30.6s
9. Bruno Magalhaes Peugeot + 7m53.3s
10. Jean-Sebastien Vigion Peugeot + 11m02.9s