Valence - Sebastien Loeb, chasing an unprecedented ninth title, was playing second fiddle to Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala at the start of the Monte Carlo Rally on Wednesday.
Latvala took early command in his Ford Fiesta in this the 80th edition of the race after making the better choice of tyres for the opening pair of specials around Valence.
Loeb got off to a flier in winning the 36km opening special in his Citroen and opened up an early 22sec lead.
But Latvala roared back on super soft tyres and the Frenchman lost 52sec in the second special, a 30km affair at Burzet-Saint-Martial with Loeb observing that fitting the snow chains to his front wheels had not proved a good idea.
Latvala also went for front chains on the second special but the softer tyres approach for the remaining 20km saw him streak provisionally clear.
Seven former world champions - and five former winners - are taking part at this the first race of the 2012 World Rally Championship after Monaco spent three years on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge circuit.