Sebastien Loeb shows why he is still the top dog on icy Alps
Sebastien Loeb says he is a racing driver now - but he's still some rally driver too.
The nine-times world champion ended a 15-month exile by taking the Monte Carlo Rally by storm last night. He blew the opposition away on the opening stage, including reigning champion Sebastien Ogier, setting the fastest time by 22 seconds from Ott Tanak and beating Volkswagen ace Ogier by half-a-minute.
Kris Meeke, partnering Loeb in the Citroen team for the first time, was fourth fastest, 32 seconds behind the French legend, but more than happy with his start to the most difficult rally of the season.
However, the focus was all on Loeb and his rally comeback after switching to the World Touring Car Championship last year. Monte Carlo, which he has won seven times, is officially a one-off appearance and he started 14th on the road, way behind the Volkswagens of Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala.
But the split times - which this season the drivers don't receive - soon sent Twitter into overdrive as they showed Loeb consistently faster all the way through the ice-bound opening stage in the Alps.
Most drivers described it as "a nightmare" and even Loeb said it was "tricky", but he showed all his old mastery as he swept to the top of the leaderboard.
Meeke, too, finished with a big smile on his face, like Loeb saying it was tricky but adding: "I loved it - I'm happy."
Mads Ostberg, in the third Citroen, was fifth fastest and said: "No words have been invented to describe that stage…"
The other big surprise was the performance of Estonian Tanak, making his debut with the M-Sport Ford team, who slotted into second place, nine seconds ahead of Ogier and 11 faster than Meeke.
Thierry Neuville was fastest of the Hyundais in sixth ahead of the privateer Ford of last year's runner-up Bryan Bouffier, with Latvala back in eighth, already over 40 seconds behind Loeb.
The second stage of the night was snow-free but caused more problems with most of the cars fitted with studded tyres.
Meeke said it was more dangerous than the first because of gravel dragged onto the roads by the cars ahead and he dropped 40 seconds to Ogier who was quickest.
Even Loeb struggled, saying there was lots of gravel and mud, and dropped 15 seconds to Ogier but still returned to the service park in Gap last night leading the rally. Ogier was up to second with Latvala third and Tanak fourth. The Ford of Elfyn Evans was fifth, a 10th of a second ahead of Meeke.
The rally resumes today with a further six stages.
Meanwhile, Jonny McMullan is planning to take full advantage of Motorsport Ireland's Young Driver of the Year award with a packed programme of Formula Ford races on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Lack of funding saw 22-year-old McMullan, from Newtownabbey, sit out most of last year but impressive end-of-season performances at the Brands Hatch Festival earned him the lucrative award and will allow him to tackle both the All-Ireland championship and the cross-channel BRSCC series as well as major trophy races including the Vivion Daly Formula Ford Festival, Leinster Trophy, Martin Donnelly Trophy, Walter Hayes Trophy and the Formula Ford Festival.
McMullan, a former Northern Ireland champion and Kirkistown lap record holder, will drive a Motorsport Ireland Van Diemen run by the Bernard Dolan team.