Kris Meeke shines 50 years after Paddy Hopkirk triumph
Kris Meeke surprised even himself by finishing day one of the Monte Carlo Rally in second place.
Making his debut as leader of the Abu Dhabi Citroen team, the plan had always been to start steadily and carefully, aiming for a place in the top six.
But it went so much better than that and Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle returned to the service park in Gap in the French Alps last night in second, 38 seconds behind former Monte winner Bryan Bouffier's Ford Fiesta.
Meeke was just a second ahead of the Ford of ex-F1 driver Robert Kubica and nine in front of the Volkswagen of World champion Sebastien Ogier.
Citroen team-mate Mads Ostberg was fifth, young Welshman Elfyn Evans sixth for Ford and VW's Jari-Matti Latvala seventh.
The Ulsterman was delighted, of course, but admitted he hadn't anticipated being in the thick of the battle for the lead.
"No, I wasn't expecting to be up so close to the front," he said.
"I was just trying to bed myself in, get to grips with the car and avoid any costly mistakes.
"I would have been happy with anywhere in the top five or six.
"But it went better than expected despite it being one of the most difficult days I can remember in a rally car. It threw everything at us ... snow, ice, slush, rain, mud ... it was terrible at times.
"But we made a good call on the tyres on the morning stages, carrying two snow tyres in the boot which were perfect for the third stage. We mixed them with the slicks and fitted them in a diagonal pattern. It worked really well."
Meeke, who is wearing a decal on his helmet celebrating fellow Ulsterman Paddy Hopkirk's Monte win 50 years ago, also paid tribute to former Ulster Rally winner Mark Higgins who is acting as his ice note driver, checking the stages two hours ahead of the rally.
"Mark warned me of a four to five kilometre stretch of black ice on the first stage which was impossible to see at speed," he said.
Kubica had led for the first two stages with Meeke second but the Pole was caught out by the snow on stage three, dropping back to fourth as Bouffier, using the same tyre combination as Meeke, jumped into the lead.
Heavy rain turned the stages to slush and mud in the afternoon and Meeke eased up, now unsure of his tyre choice.
"The conditions were really bad and I didn't feel comfortable on the winter tyres we fitted. I have very little experience of them and lost a bit of confidence," he said.
Meeke dropped back to third behind Kubica but then regained second with a strong finish on the final stage of the day.
The big shock of the opening leg was the demise of the new Hyundai team.
Thierry Neuville crashed out just four miles into the first stage, smashing his i120 against a telegraph pole and destroying the rear suspension.
Then Dani Sordo, who had been third at one point, was forced to retire on a road section in the afternoon with electrical failure.
Further back Robert Barrable was 20th and fifth in the WRC2 category in his Tunnocks Ford with former Irish Tarmac champion Eamonn Boland 24th in his production Subaru.
The rally resumed early today for a further five stages starting with the first of two runs over the monster 50km Vitrolles test.