Sebastien Loeb became the oldest winner of an FIA World Rally Championship round after snatching a remarkable Monte Carlo Rally victory from overnight leader and old foe Sebastien Ogier on Sunday.
The 47-year-old Frenchman trailed Ogier by almost half a minute heading into the penultimate stage of the fourth and final day of the WRC’s season opener in the French Alps.
But when Ogier limped to the finish with a left-front puncture on his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, Loeb reclaimed a lead he had conceded to his compatriot on Saturday. The nine-time former WRC champ stayed calm as he coaxed his Ford Puma Rally1 through the final test to seal his eighth Monte Carlo success by 10.5s.
Loeb, starting his first WRC event for more than a year, was competing for the British M-Sport Ford squad in a one-off appearance. He joins Ogier at the top of the Monte Carlo Rally roll of honor with eight wins.
His victory means he has topped the WRC podium in three different decades. Co-driver Isabelle Galmiche, a 50-year-old French schoolteacher who was making her first top-tier start, became the first female winner of a WRC event since 1997.
“I didn’t expect so much when I came here,” Loeb admitted. “It was a great fight. Ogier was really fast and I struggled a bit yesterday and even this morning.”
The duel between the most successful drivers in the sport’s history provided a fitting start to the new hybrid-powered era in the championship’s 50th season.
Eight-time and reigning WRC champ Ogier led initially after Thursday’s short, two-stage prologue, although a run of four consecutive fastest times on Friday put Loeb ahead. But when the Ford driver failed to find the same pace on Saturday, Ogier moved back in front before Sunday’s breathtaking finale.
Craig Breen finished almost 90s further back in third in another Puma, giving the British-based M-Sport Ford squad an early lead in the WRC manufacturers’ championship.
Kalle Rovanpera languished outside the top 10 after the opening-night prologue, but after setup changes improved the balance of his GR Yaris, he soared up the order to secure fourth.
Despite losing time with engine issues on Saturday, Gus Greensmith claimed fifth in another Puma after winning his first special stage at the WRC level. Thierry Neuville was sixth in a Hyundai i20 N after a lackluster weekend for the Korean manufacturer. The Belgian fought problems all rally, including a broken damper which punched through his hod on Saturday. His Hyundai teammates, Ott Tanak and Oliver Solberg, both retired.
Elfyn Evans, WRC championship runner-up in 2021, was on the edge of the fight for victory until he beached his GR Yaris on a bank and remained stranded there for 20 minutes during Saturday’s leg. The Welshman ended a frustrated 21st overall.
The championship switches to Scandinavia next month for the only pure winter round of the season. Rally Sweden takes place in Umea on Feb. 24-27, with the far-north location guaranteeing some serious snow.
WRC Monte Carlo Rally, final positions after Day 3, SS17
1 Sebastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) 3h00m32.8s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +10.5s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m39.8s
4 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m16.2s
5 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +6m33.4s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20N Rally 1) +7m42.6s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia Evo; WRC2 winner) +11m33.8s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +12m24.7s
9 Erik Cais/Petr Tesinsky (M-Sport Ford Fiesta) +12m29.2s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia Evo) +13m41.3s
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