Any doubts over Volkswagen’s ability to continue dominating WRC as the new season dawned melted away faster than the Monte Carlo ice after an exemplary display of domination on the opening round of 2015.
Sébastien Ogier posted his third win in the province and the 25th of his career to date, bringing him level with rally legend Colin McRae in the all-time WRC victories list. Behind the Frenchman, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelson completed the podium to give VW a second ever one-two-three finish in WRC. This lockout was particularly symbolic as it saw the German team follow in the footsteps of Renault-Alpine, Lancia, Audi and Citroën as only the fifth manufacturer since 1973 to register a ‘triple’ in the Monte history books.
Sébastien Loeb’s much-hailed return to the seat of a rally car ended in anti-climax. What was shaping up to be a terrific duel between the nine-time world champion and current title holder Ogier was abruptly ended on Friday evening when Séb senior was forced to retire after his DS3 hit a rock, destroying its rear suspension.
Elsewhere, Citroën took fourth courtesy of a steady display from Mads Østberg, although he never looked likely to crash the VW party, with Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo coming home fifth and sixth overall.
Monte Carlo is quite simply the Zenith of rallying. First run way back 1911, it is by some distance the oldest event on the calendar and regarded by many as the most prestigious title up for grabs. Probably best remembered for the giant-killing exploits of the legendary Mini Coopers that defined rallying for much of the 1960’s, Rally Monte Carlo has always had an air of magic about it. Today’s drivers face the very same challenges that their counterparts of 50 years ago would have encountered. This means radically varying mountain conditions as well as roads that can turn from dry asphalt to ice and then to snow all in the space of a single stage, rendering the art of finding optimum grip settings a near-impossible task. Needless to say, shrewd tyre choices and a good nose for predicting overhead conditions are very much the keys to success in Monte.
If Monte Carlo was the first act in the 2015 extravaganza, top of the billing was surely the reignited rivalry between the two men who, collectively, have accounted for the last eleven WRC drivers’ titles. Defending champion Sébastien Ogier was joined on the Monte Carlo mountain passes by his old Citroën teammate, the most decorated man in the sport’s history, Sébastien Loeb. The old master was returning for a one-off outing with Citroën, the team with whom he formed an unshakable bond during his years of hegemony, and quickly set about reminding everyone of his remarkable talents at the wheel of a rally car.
After Thursday evening’s pair of night stages, it was Loeb who led the way by 13secs, an advantage he more than doubled by going a further 15secs faster than Ogier through Friday’s icy opener. However, the fascinating battle of skill and nerve was just getting started. With the roads thawing out, Ogier began to pick up the pace dramatically, making major inroads in to his compatriot’s advantage. Stage 5 saw the younger Frenchman pull to within 3secs of his nemesis. Two stages later Ogier had nudged ahead, benefiting from a rare Loeb error as the Citroën man spun at a hairpin. With just one stage remaining and the epic battle delicately poised, the watching public were left relishing the prospect of seeing how Loeb would respond to the VW number one’s concerted attack. Sadly, they were to be disappointed. On Friday’s final stage, Loeb’s DS3 collided with a rock, shattering its rear suspension. Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena soldiered on, losing 6mins in the process, but the cause was lost. The Frenchman’s retirement spelled the end of his hopes of claiming victory number 79 and brought the mouth-watering duel with Ogier to a disappointingly premature conclusion.
Such was the frenetic nature of the tussle for top spot, with one Frenchman bringing the best out of the other, that the rest of the field were reduced to virtual spectators. In fact, the only man to offer any meaningful resistance to the flying Frenchmen was Robert Kubica, who surprised many with his sheer pace on the asphalt sections, scooping three stage wins on day one. However, his challenge was blunted significantly when, after already suffering serious electrical problems on Thursday night, he left the road on the troublesome stage 8, hitting a tree and puncturing a wheel in the process.
A distant third in the running until Loeb’s demise was Jari-Matti Latvala. Even when he did find himself promoted up the leader board on stage 8, the VW number two still trailed Ogier by a vast 1min 45secs by Friday night. For his team, however, there was no let-up in the positive news, as Andreas Mikkelsen was able to end day one on his Volkswagen teammate’s coattails in third. The Norwegian leapfrogged both Kris Meeke, whose DS3 suffered a similar fate to that of Loeb’s, and the impressive debutant Ott Tanak on the last stage to cap the perfect opening day of 2015 for VW.
Saturday’s action was truncated due to the cancellation of stage 9 on safety grounds, leaving only three remaining tests for the drivers to enjoy and endure in equal measure. Ogier, with more than enough time in the bag, opted for a low-risk approach to day two’s tests, a strategy reflected by his choice of studded tyres, with the hazardous snowy section of stage 12 in mind. The spikes slowed the Frenchman down significantly on the asphalt, haemorrhaging over a minute to Latvala over the course of just three stages. It was time he could afford to lose. Despite his teammate’s best efforts, the gap still stood at a daunting 42.8secs by Saturday evening. The Finn was rather more concerned with cementing his own position than chasing down the distant Ogier and to that end he performed admirably, successfully holding Mikkelsen at arm’s length for the afternoon and ending the day with a cushion of over a minute.
Further back, Citroën’s luck finally turned for the better, with Mads Østberg making strong progress to grab fourth from Tänak. The Estonian, on debut for M-Sport, showed encouraging pace early on, however, his consistency was left wanting as he buried his Fiesta RS in to a ditch, costing him an agonising 18mins and seeing him plummet well down the order. Besides the recovering Loeb and Kubica, who continued to set scorching times in the wintery conditions, Dani Sordo was the other big mover on day two. The Spaniard stormed up from eighth to fifth, demoting, amongst others, his Hyundai teammate Thierry Neuville. The 2013 championship runner-up ended the day sixth, well ahead of Elfyn Evans’ struggling M-Sport Fiesta.
Sunday’s closing trio of stages represented the last obstacle standing between Ogier and a third Monte crown. Having negotiated the worst that the elements could throw at him over two and a half days, the VW ace was in no mood for risk taking. However, even in cruise mode, Ogier was able to post three consecutive top five finishes and by the time he triumphantly crossed the finish line, his lead over the faultless but powerless to respond Latvala had actually increased to 58secs.
Andreas Mikkelsen successfully delivered the proverbial cherry on the cake for Volkswagen by securing third overall. The young Norwegian’s final margin over fourth place man and compatriot Mads Østberg was 31.3secs. The DS3 pilot matched his 2014 result here; however his attempts to go one better were scuppered when his engine twice cut out mid-stage, costing him vital seconds.
Just 0.8secs split the Hyundai duo after Thierry Neuville was able to pip i20 colleague Dani Sordo to fifth. The Spaniard had the better of the inter-team battle throughout most of the rally but was usurped on the very last stage. Elfyn Evans did not enjoy an easy ride in the hostile conditions as he had to contend with suspension damage on Saturday which limited him to seventh overall.
In truth, the outcome of the rally was effectively sealed the moment Loeb’s DS3 was crippled on Friday night. Undeterred and pressure-free, the man from Alsace proceeded to rack up stage wins virtually at will, eventually accumulating five fastest times to extend his dazzling career haul to 905. The blow of teammate Kris Meeke’s early retirement was slightly softened by a brace of stage wins on Sunday, including three bonus points on the power stage.
So, Sébastien Ogier and Volkswagen continue this season where they left off in 2014; in blistering form. The face-off with Loeb may have stretched the world champion to the limit, for a day at least, however the gulf between Ogier and the rest of his full-time competitors was the most significant factor here. It certainly sends an ominous and unambiguous message to any potential pretenders to the WRC throne. It will take a herculean effort to deny WRC’s man of the moment a third successive crown.
Ogier’s title defence resumes on Rally Sweden, running from the 12th – 15th February.
Rally Monte Carlo 2015: Final Results
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