Monte team-by-team

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Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team

1 Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena – 10/10

Loeb did enough on the opening day to prove that none of the full-time contenders for his vacant WRC throne has got anything like the same speed, then settled cheerfully into a rhythm that was still fractionally faster than anyone else in the event. Fair to say that whoever wins the 2013 title will not be the greatest rally driver in the world.

2 Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen – 6/10

Monte has never been an event on which Hirvo has shone. He is a gravel man, and gets through events like this with gritted teeth and bloody-mindedness. A bright start on the opening day quickly gave way to grumpily plodding along complaining about his tyre choices and lack of confidence, but he kept his head and was duly promoted when other guys aimed higher and ran out of talent.

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team

4 Mads Østberg/Jonas Andersson – 6/10

Not-very-mad-Mads was almost totally anonymous for much of the Monte, trundling along in the bottom third of the top 10. It made sense to be cautious and play the long game on an event that didn’t quite have enough snow to suit him, but when the conditions were right he showed the sort of pace that delivered those podiums in 2012. Sweden should be fun.

5 Evgeny Novikov/Ilka Minor – 4/10

Right up until the last day, Novikov was the star of the rally. He delivered a swashbuckling performance that thrilled and terrified onlookers in equal measure, surviving numerous scares until he came to grief against a wall. The thing is, you could write the same about Cyprus in 2009 or, indeed, most events of his career. Leopards, spots etc. – looks like an expensive year ahead for M-Sport.

Qatar World Rally Team

7 Juho Hänninen/Tomi Tuominen – 5/10

With only two events in which to prove he deserves a full-time WRC drive, Juho started brightly as the fastest of the Fords, despite having just one day in the car before the start of the event. You would expect a former IRC and SWRC champion to adapt quickly and he didn’t disappoint. He then slowed to try and reach the finish, lost too much ground and crashed trying to make it up. But with Juho these things aren’t habitual.

11 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul – 4/10

Neuville has the backing of team sponsor Nasser Al-Attiyah, who brought the young Belgian with him from Citroën. Up to now Neuville has had a few shunts but also shown some good speed. He did both in the space of two days on the Monte, making himself the first man to retire from the event. Not perhaps the result that anyone wanted.

Volkswagen Motorsport

7 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Antilla – 3/10

Jari-Matti started the Monte somewhat adrift from the pace, hovering at the bottom of the Top 10 and looking rather lost. Then something clicked and he went a bit faster. Then he crashed. Only his hesitance at the start of the event was unfamiliar.

8 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia – 8/10

It’s fair to say that Ogier was in a class of his own. It’s a class above the rest of the full-time runners of 2013 but still not able to sit at the same table as that other Sébastien bloke. Ogier may rant and rail that Loeb is irrelevant to the title – but he wouldn’t be saying that if he had been faster than the reigning champion. VW will be pleased with its star man, though – and deservedly so.

Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team

10 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio – 7/10

It was hard to believe that this was the same driver who hauled that big-ass MINI Countryman with such verve in Monte Carlo a year earlier. Reunited with Citroën and having had the benefit of driving every one of the current generation WRC cars except the Polo, Sordo should have been in position to take the fight to Ogier at least. Instead he had to wait for Novikov to bin it before reaching the podium.

Lotos Team WRC

12 Michál Kosciuszko/Maciek Szczepaniak – 5/10

A small team trying to do all 13 events on a meagre budget, they needed to finish the Monte in the top 10. They did so, but more than half an hour behind the front-runners with an S2000 Škoda and a Group N Mitsubishi in front of them… this could be a long season in so many ways.

Jipocar Czech National Team

21 Martin Prokop/Michal Ernst – 7/10

Prokop isn’t the fastest man in the WRC but he tries hard and occasionally things go his way. With DMACK tyres he has traded pace for budget, but so long as sufficient works cars go off in front of him he’s got to be looking at repeating his seventh place finish quite regularly in his 11-round season.

Bryan Bouffier

22 Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri – 6/10

Bouffier is a decent journeyman who pops up in all sorts of machinery, but he’s good on the Monte and won it in 2011, the last time it was held under the auspices of the IRC. He arrived with what was effectively the fourth works Citroën and wearing the nattiest livery of them all, but something somewhere didn’t ignite and he pottered round without causing drama or offence.

Julien Maurin

24 Julien Maurin/Nicolas Klinger – 3/10

Privateer Ford entry. Went out on SS10 when in contention for tenth place. Nothing more to add.

Craig Breen speaks Franglais!

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You know those things that they call mash-ups – like when the curiously-attired Brazilian fiftysomething Wagner spent week after week shouting to the tune of ‘Love Shack’ and ‘She Bangs’ at the same time on X-Factor? Well the craze has apparently crossed over to rally PR.

Peugeot has issued some seriously interesting news and mashed it up with one of the most preposterous ‘quotes’ ever to grace a press release. The news is that hugely talented young Irishman, Craig Breen, will be driving very fast in a Peugeot 208 R5 on this year’s FIA European Rally Championship. The WRC’s 2012 champion in S2000 and 2011 FIA Academy winner is a major star in the making, and his eight rounds on the ERC will be spent developing the 208 R5 – no doubt with the accumulation of silverware also following in due course.

This news was twinned an alleged quote from Breen that was clearly written by a French PR person in their very best English. It’s endearingly awful. In fact they’ve become our new favourite PR person in the world. Here’s what they imagined Craig’s response to the Peugeot call-up to be:

“This is incredible and beyond my dreams. I am really excited to work with a manufacturer like Peugeot Sport, I think of it since I was a young boy. To arrive here in front of a nice season is a good position to be in. My objective is to show good speed and challenge for some victories on a regular basis. For the testing program, I will give the best I can to support the development of the 208 Type R5.

As the ERC continues to make inroads into people’s affections this year, the addition of the likeable Breen and a bonkers PR team is another major plus. Meanwhile, here’s Wagner in what we at WRF sincerely hope is a preview of how the rest of Peugeot’s press releases will be put together this year…

Aaaaaargh! It’s Ken Block!

Blocks new digs

Not enough action for you in Monte Carlo? Well fear not, rally fans, because Ken Block is returning to the WRC to bend more Ford Fiestas. Hooray!

For the second year running Block has announced that he will make three WRC outings at the wheel of an M-Sport Fiesta, naming his section of the Dovenby squad’s service area as the Hoonigan Racing Division.

“Once again, I’m trying to fit in as much driving as possible,” explained Block.“Unlike most drivers who only compete in one series, I’m very fortunate to be able to race in so many different disciplines. Between competing in X Games, Global RallyCross, Rally America, Gymkhana GRID and WRC, It’s going to be an awesome year. I can’t wait to get it started.”

Is it just us, or is The Block looking increasingly like Beaker from The Muppets? Anyway, a new livery featuring a lot of bright blue instead of his traditional fluorescent yellow-y green apparently signifies Block’s new Hoonigan thing, although his sponsor line-up of DC trainers and Monster energy drink remains unchanged…

“With the name change to Hoonigan Racing Division, we wanted to take the look in a slightly different direction, one that has been inspired by my love of 80s and early 90s skateboarding graphics, as well as Miami Vice-era offshore powerboats and a dash of hair metal and old school hip hop mixed in for good measure.”

We can’t wait.

Monte Final: Loeb’s victory parade cut short

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A cathartic final day on the Monte Carlo Rally ended early but the result was entirely familiar, with Sébastien Loeb winning and a couple of damaged Ford Fiestas. Massive crowds caused the abandonment of the final two stages on the grounds of safety, allowing the celebrations to start early in the Citroën camp…

Two of three runs through the Col de Turini were completed and these ultimately defined the day: the legendary asphalt being a coated in a treacherous mixture of ice and slush. On the first run through it was 2011 Monte winner Bryan Bouffier who set the pace – such as it was, averaging just 37mph. That was a clear indication that this was not going to be a day for swashbuckling charges – and perhaps inevitably meant that Evgeny Novikov would be the first man to crash out.

M-Sport’s young Russian was the hero of the day yesterday, but ended up a forlorn figure on Turini standing beside his three-wheeled Fiesta after knocking the left rear off. Novikov had ridden his luck hard to get that far, but soon enough Jari-Matti Latvala also notched up his first retirement with Volkswagen, and then Juho Hänninen’s first run in an M-Sport Fiesta  came to a sudden halt as well.

So it was that Citroën was to see the greatest possible profit from this chaos, with works team leader Mikko Hirvonen finding himself promoted back to fourth and the works-supported entry of Bouffier getting a boost to fifth – positions they held until the premature finish.

Of the top five positions, four ultimately belonged to the French team. Only Sébastien Ogier’s Volkswagen, in second place, prevented a whitewash for Citroën on the world’s most famous rally, which it has long treated as a home event. M-Sport team leader Mads Østberg brought his Fiesta home in sixth, some way behind, with Martin Prokop’s DMACK-shod Fiesta entered by the Czech national team claiming seventh.

WRC2 winner Sepp Wiegand finished eighth overall in his Škoda Fabia S2000. WRC3 winner Sébastien Chardonnet – the last man standing among the 2WD contenders – claimed 13th overall in his Citroën.

So it is that Sébastien Loeb starts 2013 as he ended 2012 – at the top of the WRC points table. Citroën has also done better than it could have hoped in accumulating manufacturers’ points. Sébastien Ogier might not have had anything in his arsenal to contend with his nemesis in Monte Carlo, but can take solace in the points cushion he holds over Hirvonen and Østberg, his two most likely challengers over the full 13 rounds of the 2013 WRC season.

Ogier’s Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option

In the absence of Petter Solberg, we were hoping that someone was going to step up to the plate in the ‘massive, massive denial that Sébastien Loeb is the fastest rally driver’ stakes.

Sure enough, when he’s 90 seconds down to his former team-mate, you can rely on Sébastien Ogier to flat refuse to stare facts in the face.

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Best of all, as Loeb has been stretching his lead in Monte Carlo he has been saying that the stages remind him of Sweden – which is only three weeks away and the second of the nine-time champion’s four events this season. We can’t wait! Imagine the press conference transcript on the opening day flashing up on the FIA website:

Q: In Monte Carlo you seemed to think that you were leading the event, when clearly you weren’t. Can you-

Sébastien Ogier: People can’t figure me out. They can’t process me. I don’t expect them to. You can’t process me with the normal brain.

Q: Ummm… right. So are you saying that you won the Monte, then?

SO: I’m tired of pretending I’m not special. I’m tired of pretending I’m not a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars.

Monte Part 6: Shiny, happy people…

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Sisteron is an emblematic stage and it closed the third day’s action in the Alpes Maritimes. Despite extremely icy conditions, almost everyone came through with a smile on their face. All except Mikko Hirvonen…

Sébastien Loeb was happy to have nudged a second or two further away from anyone else. But with his Citroën more than 90 seconds ahead after 13 stages, it’s all fairly academic. In second place, Volkswagen’s star Sébastien Ogier is also a picture of contentment, choosing to ignore Loeb’s very existence and focus instead on his own 90-second advantage over Evgeny Novikov in third.

The young Russian charger has been spectacular throughout, and by putting his M-Sport Fiesta in contention for a podium he is doing all that Malcolm Wilson could ask. He gets the quote of the day award, too, for stating that it had been ‘a fine day’. Presumably he is honing his ENglish skills from watching 1950s war movies and will soon appear in the service park smoking a pipe and with a spaniel skipping along at his heels.

Novikov’s ascent was aided by Dani Sordo having a spin in his Citroën. Nevertheless, Novikov had been hauling him in at a furious pace, so the Spaniard was fairly sanguine about it all.

Joy was unbounded for fifth placed Jari-Matti Latvala, however, in the second Volkswagen. Although the Polo has escaped damage in what has been a remarkably hesitant first event for the former Ford team leader, Sisteron was the first time he looked competitive all weekend and by bagging the second fastest time through the stage he also swept past Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen.

Hirvo was the most glum of the front runners. on a particularly icy day which brought out the Finn’s cautious side. He explained that he had spent so much time on the brakes that they overheated, dropping still more time to let his countryman and former team-mate Latvala through into fifth place.

Juho Hänninen holds eighth in his M-Sport car, making his the second best Fiesta so far on the event – a good reason to be cheerful in his first event at the wheel of a contemporary WRC car. The Finn’s margin over his team leader Mads Østberg is nevertheless depleted after the young Norwegian bagged his first stage win with a fine drive through Sisteron. The top 10 is completed by the works-supported Citroën of Bryan Bouffier and the Czech-entered Fiesta of Martin Prokop.

Young German ace Sepp Wiegand continued on his way towards WRC2 victory in the Škoda Fabia S2000 despite an electrical gremlin. The sole surviving WRC3 entrant, Sébastien Chardonnet, was meanwhile having plenty of fun in his Citroën DS3 R3T after putting spikes on the front wheels and finding the handling so good that his time was good enough to beat most of the 4WD WRC2 cars!

Monte Part 5: Three makes in the top three

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Sébastien Loeb stretched his lead a little on the third morning of the Monte Carlo Rally. The reigning champion was clearly enjoying himself and revelling in the crisp, clear conditions and deep snow on offer in the Alpes Maritimes, declaring that it was ‘like Sweden’.

Given that Loeb will also be driving in Sweden in three weeks’ time, this was probably not what his rivals wanted to hear – least of all Sébastien Ogier in second place. Having adopted the policy of putting his fingers in his ears and going ‘la-la-laaa’ whenever Loeb’s name is mentioned, however, Ogier seems to have rediscovered a bit of equilibrium and was pleased with his pace.

If anyone was more bullish than Ogier it was Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov, who remained right on the pace in the morning loop and, on the first stage of the afternoon, was able to capitalise on a half-spin by Dani Sordo to put his Fiesta up into third place. As is so often the way, Novikov’s progress has been heart-in-the-mouth stuff and he’s flirted with disaster several times. So far so good, however, and there is now the possibility of seeing three cars from three makes on the podium.

The rest of the field is largely static. Mads Østberg passed Bryan Bouffier for eighth on SS11 and backed this up with his first stage win on SS13. His consistent, measured approach is the antithesis of team-mate Novikov’s balls-out charging but M-Sport should at least feel fairly confident of getting his car back in one piece.

Østberg is still some way behind his M-Sport companion Juho Hänninen. A certain flamboyance to the Finn’s cornering style has been costing him time as he in turn pursues countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, but he’s relishing this outing. Both Hirvonen and Latvala are also in better spirits than yesterday as they carry on a private battle in the middle of the WRC order.

Sébastien Chardonnay’s Citroën is now the only WRC3 contender left in the field. In WRC2, Sepp Wiegand’s Škoda has what looks to be an impregnable lead.