(19/1/2014) SEBASTIEN Ogier has begun the defence of his FIA World Rally Championship with victory for Volkswagen in a treacherous Rallye Monte-Carlo.
Ogier, from the French alpine town of Gap, where the rally started on Thursday, chose caution over speed in difficult conditions on the final stages to cross the finish line in Monaco with a 51 second advantage late on Saturday night.
He and co-driver Julien Ingrassia overcame unpredictable ice, rain and snow and an early altercation with a bridge in their Volkswagen Polo R WRC to win seven of the 15 stages on the 2014 championship’s opening round.
Ford privateer Bryan Bouffier, who won the Monte in 2011 when it was not part of the WRC, eventually finished second last night after leading on day one.
Irishman Kris Meeke came third in his first drive as a full-time Citroen team member and his first since a costly crash-marred effort in Coates Hire Rally Australia last September cast doubt on his WRC future. Mpnte-Carlo was Meeke’s first WRC podium result.
The teams that will line up in front of the royal palace to receive their trophies from the monarch Prince Albert today survived perilous winter alpine conditions on the rally world’s oldest event, which first ran in 1911.
Non-finishers included some of the rally’s highest-profile starters.
The new Shell Hyundai Motorsport factory team lost its first car when Thierry Neuville hit a telegraph pole on the first stage, then Dani Sordo was forced to retire with an apparent electrical fault while holding third place on Saturday afternoon.
Ex-Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica made a sensational debut among the full-time WRC elite, leading the first two stages, but was caught out on ice on Saturday and hit a bridge with his Ford Fiesta RS.
Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen, returning to Ford after a frustrating two years with Citroen, was forced to retire from sixth place with an alternator problem on the final stage. But it was not without a heroic last-gasp effort, Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen even removing the windscreen to drive in the lashing winter rain after the wipers lost power, but to no avail.
Ogier was forced to draw on all of his experience to win his first Rallye Monte-Carlo after suffering a nightmare first day.
Running first on the road, he encountered the worst of the weather and then hit the bridge, forcing him back to 9th place.
However, he bounced back on day two to take what would prove to be an unassailable lead.
“It’s been a tough weekend. I had it in my mind that victory was still possible when I lost a lot of time on the first day, but I’m happy the rally is finished,” Ogier said.
Bouffier impressed with an assured drive. He led the rally for seven stages but gave way to Ogier after he spun on stage nine.
Meeke was only 35s slower than Bouffier after 15 stages. The Briton battled with Robert Kubica early on but the pressure dropped when the Pole went off the road.
“This rally has been so crazy. If I can finish this rally with no mistakes, I think I can do it on any rally,” Meeke said.
Mads Ostberg completed a memorable weekend for Citroen as he finished fourth, just under a minute behind Meeke, and Jari-Matti Latvala was fifth in his Volkswagen.
The Finn didn’t have the best start after stopping to change a puncture on day one, but ended well by winning the rally-ending Power Stage, which earned three extra championship points.
Welsh junior Elfyn Evans was another debutant to emerge unscathed in sixth, while Andreas Mikkelsen was the final manufacturer finisher in seventh.
The championship moves to even harsher winter conditions in round two at Rally Sweden on 5-8 February.
Round 10, Rally Australia will be staged on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 11-14 September.