(Reuters) - Hyundai's Ott Tanak took the early lead in the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday after winning the first two stages in the French Alps.
The Estonian crashed heavily as reigning world champion last year but kept his car on the road this time as he finished the first 20.58km stage 3.0 seconds clear of Toyota's Kalle Rovanpera.
Tanak added another 0.3 to his advantage in the second stage from Saint-Maurice to Saint-Bonnet.
French curfew rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced changes to the scheduling, with early starts and finishes, no night stages and no spectators.
"We never started before in daylight and with consistent conditions," said Tanak.
"We have more stability with the car compared to last year and definitely better feedback."
Conditions on the asphalt roads were wet with icy patches and M-Sport Ford's Teemu Suninen was the first retirement after hitting a bank, rolling his car off the road and down an embankment on the opening stage.
Toyota's Elfyn Evans was running third with Hyundai's Belgian Thierry Neuville, last year's Monte Carlo winner now competing with new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe after splitting with Nicolas Gilsoul last week, in fourth.
Seven times world champion Sebastien Ogier, bidding for a record eighth Monte Carlo win in what the Frenchman has said will be his final season, was fifth for Toyota.
Five stages will be held on Friday, starting before dawn, with the 89th edition of the rally ending on Sunday with a formal finish in the Mediterranean principality.
The season marks the end of an era for the championship, with new hybrid cars coming in for 2022, and a new start with Pirelli replacing Michelin as sole tyre supplier after a 10-year absence.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)