Flying Finn Juho Hanninen has given the brand new Skoda Fabia S2000 the lead of the Monte Carlo Rally on the Czech machine’s debut. The 26-year-old, who finished runner-up in last year’s Production Car World Rally Championship, confirmed the excellent reliability of the Fabia seen in pre-season testing. He made the correct tyre choices all day in mixed conditions to end the opening three stages 11.9 seconds ahead of Stephane Sarrazin in the factory Peugeot 207 S2000. Even more impressively, Hanninen is the only one of the top three not to have contested the legendary Monte Carlo Rally previously.
Sarrazin, who is usually a star of Peugeot’s Le Mans programme, enjoyed a different type of challenge throughout the day, winning the second stage of the rally (La Motte Chalancon-St Nazaire le Desert) by an impressive 13 seconds. This enabled him to climb up to second place: a position he maintained until the end of the day.
In third after the first three stages is reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz, who won the opening stage near Monaco (Tourette du Chateau-St Antonin). The Peugeot Belgium driver also steered clear of problems to end up firmly in touch with the battle for the lead.
The first day of the 77th Monte Carlo Rally contained everything the epic event is famous for: mixed conditions that ranged from heavy snow to dry asphalt, and plenty of surprises. The first stage included a number of icy corners while stage two was drier and the final test of the day was run in heavy snow. This meant that drivers were forced to constantly look for the right compromise in terms of tyre choice.
Hanninen decided not to take studded tyres for any of the stages, and although this slowed him in some areas, meaning that he did not win a stage today, it was generally the best overall decision. Sarrazin opted differently; taking studs only for the last stage, while Vouilloz chose them only for stage one.
As always in these marginal conditions, plenty of drivers were caught out by a sudden lack of grip. Abarth’s new signing Luca Rossetti and the 1994 World Rally Champion Didier Auriol (Peugeot) hit problems within metres of each other towards the beginning of the icy opening stage. Giandomenico Basso (Abarth) felt that his tyre choice over the course of the day was not ideal, with a couple of spins on stage one, while his Finnish team mate Anton Alen got off to an excellent start by setting fourth-fastest time on stage one with studded tyres. However, all this good work was undone by an unfortunate puncture on SS2, which cost him the chance of a top result on the opening day.
The privately-entered Abarth of World Rally Championship star Toni Gardemeister also showed promise by running third after the opening stage, but later dropped time due to transmission problems. Meanwhile, the second factory Skoda of Jan Kopecky struggled with a power steering problem but rounds off the top 10 in Valence tonight.
With Vouilloz winning the first stage and Sarrazin claiming stage two, the final stage win went to another Peugeot: this time driven by Kris Meeke. The Irishman, making his IRC debut, quickly got to grips with his Peugeot UK-entered car and ends the day in the top six. Also worthy of note was a solid performance from Mitsubishi driver Franz Wittmann, another IRC debutant, who ends the day a creditable ninth.
The IRC 2WD Cup is currently led comfortably by Italian driver Manuel Villa, driving a Fiat Punto S1600 in 39th overall. He has more than a two-minute advantage over local man Guy Mottard, driving a Peugeot 206 RC.
1Hanninen/Markkula    Skoda Fabia S2000    56m32.8s
2 Sarrazin/Renucci    Peugeot 207 S2000    +11.9s
3 Vouilloz/Klinger    Peugeot 207 S2000    +33.9s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia    Peugeot 207 S2000    +49.3s
5 Loix/Smets    Peugeot 207 S2000    +54.6s
6 Meeke/Nagle    Peugeot 207 S2000    +1m01.3s
7 Basso/Dotta    Abarth Grande Punto S2000    +1m29.8s
8 Gardemeister/Tuominen    Abarth Grande Punto S2000    +1m35.5s
9 Wittmann/Ettel    Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9    +3m31.2s
10 Kopecky/Stary    Skoda Fabia S2000    +4m30.0s
Two-wheel drive leader: Manuel Villa (Fiat Punto S1600)
"I’m very, very pleased with the way that things have gone today: I would honestly have not expected to be in the lead. If I have managed it, this is also thanks to our gravel crew who have done an excellent job, so I would like to thank them especially. Even though the conditions have been very mixed, their information gave me the confidence to put the power down even where there was some snow, as I knew that I would have grip. I was deliberately trying to stay safe today and not choose any radical options with tyres and settings, and it seems that this is the way forward. But tomorrow is a different day, so let’s see what it will bring. Certainly this is the best possible way to start my career with Skoda!"
-Juho Hanninen, Skoda driver
"I’m happy but today has been even more difficult than my previous experience of the Monte Carlo Rally. The first stage was a really big wake-up call for us; we were on slick tyres and I nearly went off on every corner. For the second stage we had the perfect choice, and it went much better; the last stage was good for us too. The main thing is that we are still firmly in the fight for the lead and there is a long way to go. I think the stages tomorrow should be drier so hopefully it will be a bit easier then, but the thing about Monte Carlo is that it is completely unpredictable and that is something we have already seen today."
-Stephane Sarrazin, Peugeot Total driver
"We had no real problems although it’s been a tiring day. On the third stage we hit a rock slightly and that gave us a slow puncture at the front-right, meaning that the car understeered more as the stage went on. The easiest stage today was probably the second one; the others were extremely tough. Once more though we’ve got a reliable car and we’ve also had some good information from our gravel crews and tyre engineers. To be on the provisional podium is a good start; now we have to try and continue in this way."
-Nicolas Vouilloz, Peugeot Belgium driver
Thursday’s action sees the crews complete a total of six stages, making up 145.78 competitive kilometres. The day starts at 08:15, followed by a loop of three stages that includes the famous 25.30-kilometre St Bonnet le Froid test to the north-west of Valence. The cars then return for a 20-minute service at the Polygone in Valence at 13:28.
This service halt is followed by a repeat of the morning’s three stages. The cars return to service at Valence for the second time at 18:26, before entering parc ferme at 19:11.

Rallye Monte-Carlo, Monaco 20-24 01 2009   
Eurosport will broadcast the Monte Carlo Rally regularly, with live coverage from the stages, and it is also possible to watch the rally live on www.rally-irc.com, and the Yahoo Eurosport platform thanks to Eurosport’s live streaming system. To watch, simply log onto the website and click on the ‚watch live streaming‘ message in the flash news banner. Alternatively, click on the flag of your preferred language in the Yahoo Eurosport box. All times listed below are Central European Times. At the end of each leg, there will be on-demand video highlights posted in the ‚video highlights‘ section.
Wednesday 21 January
00:00-00:15       Leg one highlights    Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific
Thursday 22 January
10:30-11:15       LIVE SS5                 Eurosport 2 & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
15:45-16:30       LIVE SS8                  Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
00:00-00:15     Leg two highlights    Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific    
Friday 23 January
19:30-21:15       LIVE SS11/SS12     Eurosport 2 & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
23:00-01:00       LIVE SS13/SS14     Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet

Juho Hanninen stormed into the lead of the Monte Carlo Rally, on the competition debut of the Skoda Fabia S2000



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