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PHOTO: Flat out in the French alps, Sébastien Ogier races to victory in Rallye Monte-Carlo(M-Sport pic)

SÉBASTIEN Ogier eased his Ford Fiesta through a snowy final leg in the mountains above Monaco to claim his fourth-straight Rallye Monte-Carlo win in the opening round of the new-look FIA World Rally Championship last night (Australian time).

Victory by 2min 15.0sec was a dream debut for the Frenchman at the M-Sport World Rally Team, which had not topped a WRC podium since November 2012.

Ogier’s result meant he effectively resumed where he left off after four championship-winning seasons with the Volkswagen factory team, which retired from the WRC after 2016.

His future had been the focus of a brief but tumultuous off-season, which reached its climax when new drivers, new teams and, above all, exciting new-spec cars lined up for the legendary Monte on Thursday night.

Former Volkswagen teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, freed from the shadow of Ogier’s customary dominance, capitalised on a switch to a factory-team Toyota Yaris by taking second place yesterday. The result exceeded expectations for the global number one car maker’s return to the WRC after a 17-year absence.

Second had seemed a virtual certainty for Estonian Ott Tänak until his Fiesta developed an engine misfire yesterday. Relinquishing the spot to Latvala by 42.8sec denied M-Sport a one-two finish, but at least Tänak successfully defended third from Dani Sordo with a spectacularly-sideways downhill drive in falling snow on the final stage.

Ogier had taken the lead late on Saturday’s penultimate leg when event-long leader Thierry Neuville broke his Hyundai i20 Coupe’s suspension after an impact.

With a comfortable gap, Ogier took no risks as snow fell heavily on the final speed test over the famous Col de Turini.

“Obviously I feel really great. It always feels good to win at Rallye Monte-Carlo, but this year we had one of the most difficult challenges we have ever had,” he said.

“We had to contend with some really demanding conditions and also had a new car and a new team – it’s really incredible.

“I was hoping to win but to take it from the first rally, after only one month together and with so little preparation, feels really amazing.”

Latvala struggled to find a good rhythm initially, but changes to his car’s set-up revitalised the Finn and gave principal Tommi Mäkinen a strong start to his new team. Toyota’s second entry finished 16th in the hands of Juha Hänninen.

“If you had told me before the start of the rally that this is where we would finish, I would never have believed it. In fact, this equals my best-ever result on this rally,” Latvala said.

Behind the fast-finishing Hyundai of Dani Sordo, Craig Breen finished fifth in a Citroën DS 3 and Elfyn Evans completed the top six in another Fiesta. The Welshman won three stages on Saturday to offset a disappointing start when he dropped several minutes in snow and ice.

One of the rally’s biggest disappointments involved Citroên lead driver Kris Meeke, who in his promising new C3 WRC had been picked to be among Ogier’s fastest rivals. The Northern Irishman retired from Friday’s competition after skidding on ice and crashing, on Saturday he had mechanical problems and then a traffic collision on the liaison stage back to Monte-Carlo and yesterday he retired on the first stage with further mechanical problems.

It was a successful rally for all the former Volkswagen drivers, with Rally Australia 2016 winner Andreas Mikkelsen taking the WRC 2 category for Škoda by three minutes – and finishing an impressive seventh outright.

Big crowds packed every vantage point on the alpine routes above Monaco to see the world’s best rally drivers battle snow, ice and even dry tarmac on the world’s longest-running rally, founded in 1911. Organisers cancelled the penultimate stage yesterday because of a safety risk posed by the number of spectators.

The next round of the FIA World Rally Championship is Rally Sweden on 9-12 February. The rally is held exclusively on snow and ice, with studded tyres allowing cars to reach very high speeds. With temperatures potentially below -20deg C, it will be another tough test for the faster new cars and crew combinations.

The 2017 WRC comprises 13 rounds in Europe, Britain, Central and South America and Australia. It will end with Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 16-19 November.

RESULTS, Rallye Monte-Carlo (2017 FIA WRC, round 1):

1. Sébastien Ogier / Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) 4:00:03.6
2. Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +2:15.0
3. Ott Tänak / Martin Järveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2:57.8
4. Dani Sordo / Marc Marti (Hyundai 120 Coupe WRC) +3:35.8
5. Craig Breen / Scott Martin (Citroen DS3 WRC) +3:47.8
6. Elfyn Evans / Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +6:45.0
7. Andreas Mikkelsen / Anders Jaeger (Škoda Fabia R5) +9:32.7
8. Jan Kopecky / Pavel Dresler (Škoda Fabia R5) +12:58.1
9. Stéphane Lefebvre / Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 WRC) +14:43.8
10. Bryan Bouffier / Denis Giraudet (Ford Fiesta R5) +16:09.4

FIA WRC Drivers’ Championship (after round 1):

1. S. Ogier 25
2. J-M Latvala 18
3. O. Tanak 15
4. D. Sordo 13
5. C. Breen 10
6. E. Evans 10
7. A. Mikkelsen 6
8. S. Lefebvre 6
9. T. Neuville 5
10. J. Kopecky 4

FIA WRC Manufacturers’ Championship (after round 1):

1. M-Sport World Rally Team 40
2. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC 24
3. Hyundai Motorsport 20
4. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team 10

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.