Meeke lets his lead slip after an icy second stage
Frenchman Sebastien Ogier made the most of his local knowledge to regain the lead from Kris Meeke on day two of the Monte Carlo Rally.
The triple World champion returned to the Volkswagen service area in Gap last night, the leader by just over nine seconds, but Meeke, who had led by six seconds after the first leg on Thursday night, made him fight for his slim advantage, the lead swapping hands twice during yesterday's six stages in the icy Alps.
In the end the difference was one stage, the 17 kilometres of Les Costes - Chaillol which the drivers tackled twice.
It cost Meeke 18 seconds - eight first time around in the morning and then 10 in the afternoon. The reason? Perhaps because Ogier, a former ski instructor, grew up in the area and lives nearby.
The Dungannon driver smiled ruefully as he brought his Abu Dhabi team Citroen DS3 to a halt in Chaillol at the end of day two.
"Seb lives about three kilometres from here, so I'm happy to give him this one. Still a long way to go on this rally. We fight on."
Ogier, a two-time Monte winner, was happy too. "Exciting," he said. "Kris is driving very well, very fast. It is nice battle. I'm happy though, it's been a good day."
Meeke held his lead for the first two stages yesterday but then fell 1.5 seconds behind on the first run through Les Costes - Chaillol before edging in front again in the afternoon. Then came Les Costes - Chaillol second time around and Ogier steamed ahead.
The see-saw duel saw the Ulsterman and the Frenchman share fastest times on all eight stages so far, four each, and race away from the chasing pack.
Closest challenger, Jari-Matti Latvala in the second of the VW Polos, was over a minute behind and the third member of the VW team, Andreas Mikkelsen, was more than one-and-a-half minutes back in fourth place. The Hyundais and the Fords were even further adrift.
Only Rally Argentina winner Meeke, revelling in the freedom afforded by a new three-year Citroen contract, offered a threat to a driver who has dominated the World championship for the past three years.
Thierry Neuville was the leading Hyundai driver in fifth, one minute 47 seconds down, and Meeke's Citroen team-mate from last year, Mads Ostberg, now driving for the M-Sport Ford team, completed the top six but a massive two minutes 18 seconds away from the lead.
The rest, including Hyundai's Dani Sordo (seventh) and Meeke's young French team-mate Stephane Lefebrve (eighth), were over three minutes behind.
Meeke was quick to pay tribute to his ice crew of former NI junior champion Stephen Whitford and leading Irish co-driver Derek Brannigan, who drive the stages ahead of the rally noting road conditions and ice patches. He called them his "saviour" as he made it through with just one harmless spin.
Others weren't so fortunate, the slippery conditions catching out a number of drivers including Robert Kubica, Haydon Paddon and Eric Camilli, who all crashed out.
Elfyn Evans, leading the WRC2 division in 11th overall, might have gone too but his Ford Fiesta bounced off the stranded car of Kubica and stayed on the road.
The rally continued today with five more stages.