Elfyn Evans led ACI Rally Monza on Friday night after a thrilling FIA World Rally Championship title scrap with team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
Ogier was the master of the mountains to lead after four fiendishly difficult speed tests in the Italian Alps. Evans had the better of the afternoon at Monza’s ‘Temple of Speed’ circuit to close the first of three days with a 1.4sec advantage.
Evans is bidding to wipe out a 17-point deficit and deny his Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mate an eighth world title in nine seasons. But Ogier is currently doing enough to finish his full-time WRC career on the best possible note.
Ogier won three of the first four special stages in fog and on slippery asphalt to lead by 6.5sec in his Toyota Yaris World Rally Car. Brake problems hampered the Frenchman at Monza and Evans took advantage to charge to the front.
The Welshman was relieved to emerge unscathed from a tough final stage in darkness and falling temperatures.
“That stage wasn’t easy, especially coming straight into the chicanes with quite cold tyres,” he admitted. “It’s not really nice in the dark. It was a good day around the track but, of course, we have work to do for the mountain stages tomorrow.”
“It’s been a good start,” smiled Ogier. “I think we had a good drive in the mountains. This afternoon I had some little issues and I didn’t take any risks in the last stage with the chicanes. I’m happy where I am right now. Elfyn is not a fight I need to take on.”
The front-running pair left others in their wake. Thierry Neuville was best of the rest, 20.2sec adrift in third place in a Hyundai i20. The Belgian overcame handling problems in the mountains and an afternoon gearbox issue to win one stage.
Team-mate Dani Sordo initially headed Neuville, but the Spaniard dropped behind and gradually fell away as he fought an understeering car. He bounced back to win the final stage and ended 3.0sec adrift in fourth.
Oliver Solberg impressed en route to fifth in another i20. The young Swede survived a half spin to close the day 26.0sec behind Sordo and 14.9sec ahead of Takamoto Katsuta’s Yaris.
The Japanese driver conceded a handful of seconds after stalling his engine but remained clear of Gus Greensmith’s Ford Fiesta in seventh. Teemu Suninen eased through the day to hold eighth on his debut in a top-level i20.
Ninth was a cautious Kalle Rovanperä in another Yaris, the Toyota Gazoo Racing man a back-up to Ogier and Evans. His role is to ensure sufficient points are in the bag to seal the manufacturers’ crown should his battling colleagues fall by the wayside.
WRC3 leader Yohan Rossel completed the leaderboard in 10th. He managed to stay ahead of his major rival Kajetanowicz to top the standings at the end of the day, albeit by just 2.9sec ahead of the Pole. Home hero Andrea Crugnola completes the WRC3 leader board in 12th overall.
Behind the Italian, Marco Bulacia benefited from the troubles of his Toksport Škoda Fabia Evo teammate Andreas Mikkelsen to lead FIA WRC2 on Friday, although his own day wasn’t without dramas.
The Bolivian also suffered a heart stopping moment when he overshot a corner in SS6 and had to stop and reverse. Luckily for him, the time loss was minimal and he eventually rounded out the day with a slim 5.3sec advantage over nearest challenger Jari Huttunen in his maiden outing with an M-Sport Ford Fiesta Mk II.
Adrien Fourmaux was the only major retirement of the day. The Frenchman was sixth in a Fiesta when he drifted wide in a corner, hit a wall and rolled back across the road.
Today, Saturday, is the longest leg of the rally with 108.24km of action in a similar format. A double pass through two mountain stages in the morning is followed by two afternoon Monza tests.