The nine-time champion quickly acclimatised to the WRC’s new hybrid era aided by a strong debut performance from the much anticipated M-Sport-built Ford Puma.
Loeb won four of Friday’s six stages to transform an overnight 6.7s deficit to reigning world champion Sebastien Ogier into a 9.9s lead heading into Saturday. The duo that share 15 Monte Carlo wins between them have the luxury of being able to push harder, given they are only contesting partial campaigns.
Heading into the afternoon Loeb and new co-driver Isabelle Galmiche held a 15.8s lead before Ogier issued a response on the final two stages.
The 47-year-old Frenchman could have added another stage win to his tally had it not been for a hybrid issue with his Puma on stage 7.
Loeb’s impressive WRC return has been made all the more impressive given his restricted time in the Puma and a busy schedule, having flown straight to Monte Carlo from finishing second at the Dakar Rally earlier this month.
“I didn’t expect that [to be leading], for sure I was hoping for a good rhythm with this car, and I had a good feeling in the test, but to know what speed I would have I didn’t know,” said Loeb, who is gunning for an eighth Monte Carlo victory.
“For sure I’m really happy and I was able to set some best times, with four to begin the day and then I had a little problem with the hybrid, and the last one Ogier was really fast. We are still leading the rally at the moment so I’m happy.”
Loeb dropped 4.5s on the final stage of the day as Ogier claimed his third stage win of the event to reignite the tussle between the WRC’s greatest ever drivers.
“I think I did a good stage and the time was a bit slower than him [Sebastien] but I think also he tried to push hard,” he added.
“It is good fight, at the moment we are in front but not a big gap.
“I think tomorrow will be tough with some snow at [the] Sisteron [stage] but the tyre choice will be important and to find a good rhythm also.”
Ogier not giving up on battle with Loeb in “clearly faster” Ford
Sébastien Ogier, Benjamin Veillas, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Photo by: Toyota Racing
Eight-time world champion Ogier is refusing to give up on the battle for victory despite admitting that Loeb’s Ford is the fastest of the three new Rally1 cars.
The 38-year-old managed to whittle away at Loeb’s lead after a stronger afternoon, but the Thursday leader was playing catch up after losing 15.8s to his fellow countryman on stage 5.
“It has been an okay day I think, except for one stage this morning,” Ogier told Motorsport.com.
“I think we have been doing a good job with [new co-driver] Benjamin [Veillas], but this 15s lost in one stage was a little bit hard to take, it was the most challenging stage of the day with some frost and ice.
“I was driving a little bit too safe as well, it was too much time lost, but other than that it has been a good day.
“We have some ideas to try to work on the car tonight to find some more pace for tomorrow.
“We’ll see, it is really clear that the Ford is faster,” he added, when asked if he can overhaul Loeb. “We need to see. I’m not giving up I will try my best to put pressure on.”
A first full day of competition in the Rally1 cars has highlighted areas for Toyota to work on to improve its GR Yaris.
Ogier believes fine tuning the balance and traction is the most notable issue at this stage.
“I think we have learned little bit more about the hybrid and how the car is reacting,” he added.
“The balance for the moment is still a bit of an issue for us the traction is still missing a bit. We have so many ideas, hopefully tomorrow will be better.