Monte Final: Loeb’s victory parade cut short


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.



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


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.

Principles in the Principality


Last night the world listened to Lance Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. At last he publicly acknowledged that every one of his sporting accolades was obtained with the illegal assistance of advanced medical and chemical support.

The baying masses wanted tears and contrition but Armstrong refused. Instead he explained that, as far as he is concerned, there were at least 200 cyclists who operated just as far outside the written rules of the sport as himself. Therefore, in his mind, Armstrong was only doing what was needed to be done to stay competitive. If he did it more ruthlessly than them, well, that was his advantage.

To be honest, I can understand his logic entirely. That’s not an endorsement of the man because some of his actions – notably his wilful ransacking of careers and reputations among professional support staff – are unforgivable. But the competitive logic is pure.

Perhaps it is a matter of conditioning – after all, motor sport seeks ‘the unfair advantage’ in virtually every discipline. Engineers make their money and reputation from designing something that nobody else in the field has got, something which can be exploited to remove all possibility of being beaten.

Some 50 years ago, for example, the works BMC rally team took the sport into the modern age thanks to the inventive and restless brilliance of its manager, Stuart Turner. He brought about gravel and ice note crews, a whole host of inventive ways to service the team en route and of course the cars themselves were tailored to eke the maximum  possible advantage of the rules.

The Mini was bred in 997cc, 998cc, 1071cc or 1275cc guise to fit different classes with maximum competitiveness, while each and every loophole was explored to the fullest. Of course this spelt the end of the sport for many competitors, not least my wife’s grandfather, the accomplished Monte specialist J.W. Bowdage, who realised that the gentlemen had been surpassed by the players and he was only going to either go bankrupt or get hurt if he tried to keep up with Turner’s deft rewriting of the rulebook.

Today one of Turner’s teams would last about five minutes before falling foul of one regulation or another… but it makes him no less a hero to many like me nor detract from his record in the sport’s roll of honour. BMC’s record with the Mini, MGB and Austin-Healey was an example of brilliance that few team managers in any discipline have ever rivalled. His competitors were forced to play to his rules, give up or, in the case of the 1966 Monte, changed the rulebook during the event!

Coming back to 2013, we see another ‘unfair advantage’ being exploited for all that it’s worth in Monte Carlo. Indeed, I fear that it might yet provoke a complete meltdown from Sébastien Ogier.

Here is a man who has an enviable quota of self belief and the backing of Volkswagen’s €100 million superteam. He is almost 1 minute 20s ahead of his nearest challenger, Dani Sordo, and exactly 2 minutes ahead of the man expected to lead Citroën’s campaign through the full 13 events this season, Mikko Hirvonen. He’s light years ahead of his team-mate, former Ford number 1 Jari-Matti latvala. Yet last night Ogier was almost beside himself with rage.

All it took was the mention of Sébastien Loeb. The nine-time champion is in an event of his own, which is currently taking place a minute and a half further ahead of Ogier. While the prospect of Loeb’s points will be an extremely welcome one for his Citroën team, the complete demolition job being wrought on Ogier’s psyche through being forced to concede by such a margin will be of even greater long-term benefit.

Lance Armstrong lied again last night, when he defined cheating as seeking the means ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have’. That, my dear Lance, is precisely why many competitors get out of bed in the morning.

Monte Part 4: Happy Seb, Angry Seb


“I don’t care about him. You need to get that into your minds!”

So said Volkswagen team leader Sébastien Ogier at the end of today’s running. He was of course referring to questions about Sébastien Loeb, Citroën’s nine time world champion, who added a further 14 seconds to his lead over Ogier and thereby took his advantage to more than a minute and a half.

There is no love lost between the two Frenchmen, who endured a tumultuous season together at Citroën in 2011, and for Ogier it is clear that finding himself on the receiving end of such a whooping is unpleasant.

Loeb, meanwhile, is completely at ease. He is only taking part in four out of 13 events this year, not in contention for the title and as such just having fun. The icing on the cake, of course, is in taking the sheen off Volkswagen’s long-trumpeted WRC debut and providing a salutary reminder to Ogier just who is the faster Sébastien.

With the two Sébastiens monopolising the top of the timesheets, third place and title of the fastest non-Sébastien is currently in the hands of Citroën’s other asphalt ace, Dani Sordo. The Spaniard is locked in a riveting battle with the young Russian Evgeny Novikov, who was the fastest man on two of today’s stages, at the wheel of his M-Sport Fiesta WRC.

Next up are Finland’s former works Ford team-mates: Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala. Hirvonen is the Citroën team leader for 2013 but the Monte has never been his best event. He started today in third place and ended in a subdued fifth, while his countryman Latvala has had to climb from the bottom of the top 10 while struggling for confidence in the second Volkswagen.

A much happier Finn was seventh placed Juho Hänninen, making the first of two scheduled appearances at the wheel of his M-Sport Fiesta. The 2011 IRC champion started brightly yesterday but went for a more conservative approach to drop down the order. Today he found a much better balance and put himself in with a shout of a good finish.

In Hänninen’s wake is the Citroën of 2011 Monte winner Bryan Bouffier. Behind Bouffier is the M-Sport team leader Mads Østberg with a huge lead over the Fiesta of Czech perennial Martin Prokop, who rounds out the top 10. The WRC2 is now firmly Sepp Wiegand’s to lose after the Škoda star won six of the day’s stages. WRC3 for two-wheel-drive cars remains in the hands of Sébastien Chardonnet in his Citroën DS3.

There’s still a long way to go…

Monte Part 3: Loeb imperious, Novikov flies


Whatever the Volkswagen squad is giving Sébastien Ogier for breakfast clearly works, as for the second day running he came out of the traps at a furious pace. For the second day running, however, he was also overhauled for pace after this early burst of speed, allowing overnight leader Sébastien Loeb to maintain a healthy 1m 17s advantage for Citroën by the end of the opening loop.

Loeb didn’t invoke the same brand of devastating pace as he showed yesterday, however – taking a cautious approach on what are very icy stages. In fact the fastest man in the field proved to be young Russian driver Evgeny Novikov, who seldom shows any understanding of the word ‘caution’. The M-Sport man hustled his Fiesta to a pair of stage wins on SS6 and SS7, thereby climbing from sixth to fourth through the morning, and has closed the gap to third placed Citroën of Dani Sordo from almost 50s at the start of the day to just 7.6s at the lunch break.

It’s not been a stellar day so far for Citroën’s team leader Mikko Hirvonen or his fellow countryman, Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala. Both men said that they were struggling for confidence on the combination of ice, snow and dry asphalt encountered. Mads Østberg, who shoulders most of M-Sport’s hopes, is also having a quiet event to this point – but is quite content.

In WRC2 Sepp Wiegand leads as he continues his strong run in the Škoda Fabia S2000. In WRC3 the Sebastien Chardonnet has taken the lead in his Citroën DS3 R3T after overnight leader Renaud Poutot crashed his similar car.