Although all of the crews have ice note teams that inspect the stages around two hours before the competition gets underway, they were all caught out by an unexpected amount of snow and ice on the opening 25km test.
Like almost all of his rivals, reigning World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier was using super-soft slick tyres on SS1 and promptly crashed into a wall on the very first corner. It wasn’t a good start.
Just behind him, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville became the first retirement. He was 4.5s faster than Ogier at the first split time, but his excitement got the better of him and he crashed into a telegraph pole a couple of corners later. Damage to the rear of his i20 meant he was unable to continue.
Robert Kubica ignored all the drama that was unfolding around him to set fastest times on both of the opening stages. Everyone knew the ex-F1 driver was fast, but the speed with which he got to grips with the unpredictable Monte conditions surprised many. His Ford Fiesta RS WRC was the car to beat.
But on the final stage in the opening loop, the standings changed again. The catalyst was a lengthy section of snow part way through SS3. It was a disaster for those on slick tyres, but great news for those with a couple of snow tyres in the boot of their cars.
Frenchman Bryan Bouffier fitted a snow tyre to one his car’s front corners and repeated the exercise on an opposite corner at the rear. That gave him just enough grip to set the fastest time on SS3 and move into the overall rally lead.
Citroen’s Kris Meeke did the same and moved up in to second place, while Dani Sordo followed suit and leapt in to third overall.
Kubica, who didn’t have the benefit of snow tyres, was unable to match the ultimate pace on SS3 and dropped to fourth place. Ford World Rally Team driver Elfyn Evans was second quickest on SS3 and moved up to fifth place overall, while Mads Ostberg’s Citroen finished the morning in sixth place.
In the WRC2 category, Lorenzo Bertelli set the early pace in his Ford Fiesta R5 and led the way after the first couple of stages to hold a 37-second lead over Yurii Protasov heading into the third test.
But the Italian dropped almost a minute on SS3 and promptly dropped down to second place, behind his Ukranian rival. Ireland’s Michael Barrable finished the morning in third place at the wheel of his Tunnocks World Rally Team Fiesta.
In the WRC3 category, the sole entry of Gilbert Quentin remains on course for a maximum points score after making it to the opening loop of stages unscathed.
The same loop of three stages would be re-run after lunch to complete Thursday’s first leg.