Monte Carlo Rally 2011 rewind: The one that had it all

One man's misfortune was another's lucky calling 10 years ago in what was a classic Monte Carlo Rally

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What are the key ingredients to a classic Monte Carlo Rally? A star-studded entry list is usually a given. Some iconic stages and beautiful backdrops are always guaranteed. But that bit of jeopardy thrown up by the weather? That’s what transforms a Monte from great to the stuff of legend.

Ten years ago, the Monte Carlo Rally was celebrating its centenary even though the 2011 event was actually only the 79th iteration of the rally. Either way, this major milestone only added to the hype ahead of what looked to be a titanic battle for supremacy.

Winning the Monte is always special, but winning the event 100 years on from when Henri Rougier did would guarantee that driver a spot in rallying’s hall of fame. As it turned out, that winning driver earned their plaudits and then some as they profited from a brilliant decision – and a slice of fortune – to grab the headlines as the early leader, who had bossed proceedings early on, threw it all away.

In 2011, Monte Carlo was the opening round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge – as it had been for the previous two years – and not the World Rally Championship as it is today and has been for generations. But don’t for one minute assume that that created a sub-par entry list; far from it!

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Running just three weeks before the WRC season kickstarted in Sweden, plenty of superstar names were free and ready to show rallying’s rising stars a trick or two. The biggest of those names was 2003 World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, who was drafted in by Peugeot to pilot a 207 S2000 as a one-off, and a whole host of former factory drivers were out to play.

They included François Delecour (Peugeot), Freddy Loix (Škoda Fabia S2000), Stéphane Sarrazin (Peugeot), Toni Gardemeister (Peugeot), Henning Solberg (Ford Fiesta S2000), Per-Gunnar Andersson (Proton Satria Neo S2000) and Chris Atkinson (Proton). Even Daniel Elena – a nine-time WRC title-winner calling the notes for Sébastien Loeb – had entered behind the wheel in a Citroën DS3 R3 while former Arrows Formula 1 driver Alex Caffi was in a Škoda (and deeply impressive, finishing 11th overall).

The old guard was up against the hottest young talent in rallying, as indeed they were throughout the entire IRC season. It was an eclectic mix. Reigning champion Juho Hänninen led this brigade in his works Fabia with asphalt ace Jan Kopecký as his team-mate, while Andreas Mikkelsen drove a satellite car for the Škoda UK team. Peugeot’s charge was headed by French Rally Champion Bryan Bouffier, Junior WRC regular and double British Rally Champion Guy Wilks and rising star Thierry Neuville who, despite a poor Monte, would prove a revelation later in the season. The rally was also his last without Nicolas Gilsoul before the 2021 event.

The rally itself was based in Valence in 2011, with 209.5 stage miles split across three days. This meant the route was slightly shorter than the previous two years where WRC stars Sébastien Ogier (2009) and Mikko Hirvonen (2010) took a win apiece in 207 and Fiesta S2000 machinery respectively, but despite this being his first – and ultimately only – rally in a Super 2000 rally car, Solberg was keen to follow in his WRC rivals’ footsteps.

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“Of course that was the plan,” Solberg tells DirtFish. “I had a lot of experience and of course we were planning to do everything we could.

“We tested just before the race on a small stage, just to get the feeling of it, and that was it. It was the first time I’d driven a Super 2000 car also, of course it’s different when you’re used to proper power and turbo but of course it still goes fast when you get it up to speed and it had good handling also. You can get used to things very easily.”

Perhaps it did take Solberg a while to bed himself in however, as he wasn’t the one setting the timing screens alight as the rally got underway early on Wednesday, January 19. At least he made it through the Le Moulinon-Antraigues stage in one piece though, after he clipped a wall but escaped damage. That’s more than could be said for his compatriot Mikkelsen.

Running wide on a right-hander on cold tires, Mikkelsen clipped a wall of his own with the left of his Fabia but with more severe consequences. He stopped and changed the wheel which had immediately punctured less than a minute into the rally, and while he managed to nurse his car to the end of the stage his rally was already over with suspension damage ruling him out. No Superrally rules on the Monte meant it was immediately game over. A disastrous start to what would ultimately be a title-winning year for the Norwegian.

The drama didn’t stop with Mikkelsen though as both Neuville and Atkinson crashed out on SS1 and Nicolas Vouilloz, driving a third factory Škoda, was also eliminated from the fight at the front as he lost over three minutes after a puncture.

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With Kopecký mysteriously off the pace – something he’d struggle with throughout the entire event – it was up to Hänninen to carry Škoda’s hopes. Fortunately for the Czech team, the Finn was in inspired form.

Sarrazin was the early leader, nicking just 0.3 seconds from Hänninen on the first 22.9 miles, but the rest of Wednesday belonged to Hänninen. Setting a time 15.1s better than anybody else on SS2, Hänninen suddenly found himself with a 35.6s lead (with Sarrazin only eighth quickest) and nudged that up to 44.5s by the end of the day. Finns weren’t supposed to do this on asphalt, so the reigning IRC Champion had really shown his class.

“Honestly I had a really good feeling and really good confidence because I started in 2010 towards the end of the season doing Tarmac rallies to get better and better,” Hänninen tells DirtFish.

“I was really confident with the car and it felt really good. It was so easy to drive on that first day and the feeling was it felt I could do what I wanted with the car. At the same time maybe the [other] guys were a bit struggling with let’s say their confidence and set-ups, that made a difference [as to why the gap was] so big after the first day.”

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Sarrazin was no longer Hänninen’s closest challenger as he had slipped to fourth after four stages, just 0.2s adrift of Solberg who had recovered from sixth on the first stage to occupy third. Second-quickest on the first pass of St Bonnet le Froid-St Bonnet le Froid – which was essentially a 15.7-mile circuit – had propelled Loix into the position of chaser-in-chief to Hänninen amd the Belgian doubled down on that position when he won the repeat run. Lying three-quarters of a minute behind the leader though, the fight for the win looked to be diffused before it had even had a chance to begin.

“It was kind of like ‘is this one of those crappy Tarmac Monte’s?’. Hänninen’s 50s up the road, this could be hard work. Are we going to have two more days of four stages with nothing happening?” recalls Andrew Coley, who was commentating on the event on-site for Eurosport back in 2011.

“And then the very next lunchtime, it got turned on its head.”

SS5 St Jean en Royans-Font d’Urle was fairly routine. Hänninen scored a third stage win of the week, albeit by just 0.2s over Solberg, so managed to move into a 51.5s lead after Cimetière de Vassieux-Col de Gaudissart with Solberg dislodging Loix from his second spot. Loix was coming under pressure, now only 1.9s ahead of fourth-placed Sarrazin, but it was even tighter behind as just 0.6s split Kopecký, Wilks and Bouffier in fifth, sixth and seventh.

We looked at the sky and knew now we are in big s***, both of us Juho Hänninen

Bouffier was on the up, winning SS6 before service, but with a deficit of 1m37.6s to the rally leader and only seven stages remaining, any hopes of a headline-grabbing result were already out of the window. Right?

“I had nothing to lose, I was quite far behind,” Bouffier tells DirtFish in 2021. “The guy of Météo-France told me ‘OK Bryan for me it’s going to snow in two hours’ time’ so I said OK if it’s going to snow we have to use the snow tires.

“We put five snow tires without studs on the car which was also the same tire choice as Sarrazin because he followed the choice but just before leaving the service, I thought ‘OK we have to pit guys’.

“We bet on the snow, we think that it is going to snow so we used snow tires but without studs. But we must put two studded tires in the boot [so we did] and then they drop it the last time. OK we go, we leave and we are on the road section not far from the stages and really in my mind I was thinking ‘oh s***, it’s not going to snow’.”

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Bouffier was therefore concerned, but so was everybody else. Different teams and even different drivers within teams had differing information, and some were braver than others. Was it going to snow? And if so, how much?

“I remember everyone running round the service park looking at what people are taking for the tires,” Coley says. “You had people on the out-control, people hovering about at the back of people’s service areas and obviously everyone’s trying to keep it a secret until the last possible second as to what they’re taking with them.”

Delecour – who was eighth and 2m15.1s shy of Hänninen’s lead – was the man who threw the most caution to the wind, opting for four studded tires and two snow on his Peugeot. But this wasn’t the stab in the dark it appeared to be; the WRC veteran had used his head, placing a call to a restaurant owner at the end of one of the stages which was at high altitude. His comical answer to TV interviewers reflected the intel he had received.

“Why have you chosen studded tires François?”

“Because it is snowing.”

Loix mimicked the choice of Bouffier – four snow, two studded Michelins – but the leaders Hänninen and Solberg took a different tact entirely. Hänninen was in a precarious position where he had everything to lose but nothing to gain, so was always unlikely to roll the dice. It wasn’t snowing, or even threatening to, at service in Valence, so he copied Solberg’s combination of four intermediate tires and two snow options for the boot.

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“Let’s say there was a small risk of snowing but at that time, it was quite high altitude so nobody really thought there would be any snow on the stages,” Hänninen remembers.

“Nobody was fully sure what it would be over there as we saw with quite a big variation with the tires but finally we followed a bit too much what Petter did and we did pick up the same ones and that was not the right ones.

“I remember really well when finally we were a bit optimistic with the tires which is easy to say afterwards but when we left service and were driving to the stages, the sky, the clouds it was so, so dark. At that point you knew that perhaps this won’t end up very well because it was extremely dark and looked really bad, the sky.

“We had two snow tires in the boot, exactly as Petter had, so we stopped close to him before the stage and we looked at the sky and knew now we are in big s***, both of us. I asked ‘will you change to snow tires now?’. He said ‘no, it doesn’t make such a big difference’, so I said ‘OK, I will keep the same as well’.

“And then we started to climb up the stage and for sure the start it was really good with those intermediates, but then after a few kilometers when you saw it started to be snowing, then you knew that you were still really, really low on the stage and then realized ‘oh, this won’t be easy!'”

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm

2021 MONTE ISSUED RESTRICTIONS BY LOCAL REGION

THE SPECIAL RULES FOR THE EVENT ARE AN ENCOURAGING SIGN, DESPITE THEIR STICTNESS

Bouffier recalls a similar feeling of trepidation as he made the 30-mile transit north-east from Valence to Saint-Jean-en-Royans.

“I said ‘François [before the start] you are optimistic, maybe you should cross tires with two mixed tires?’. He told me ‘no, no it’s going to be snowing’.’ I was really wondering if it was going to snow or not so I went without my studded tires, I start the stage and the more we are going up [the stage], the more it was snowing and then we could do a good time.

“And then OK there was nobody at the top of the mountain, just one guy, local radio, and he told me ‘it’s good Bryan, now you are leading the race’.”

Incredibly, Bouffier had risen six places to lead the rally by 3.1s over Sarrazin, with Loix a further 1.1s back in third. Hänninen – who shipped 1m54.2s to stage winner Bouffier purely because of his tire choice – had plummeted from first to fourth but was still in touch, 16.6s behind. Solberg was 5.2s quicker than Hänninen on the test but that was only good enough for the 13th fastest time, dropping him behind Wilks and Delecour into seventh.

“On Monte Carlo you can lose it and win it one stage if something is wrong,” Solberg says.

“I was standing in the service park and the guys said ‘ah you need slicks, it’s going to be dry’.

“‘Uh, OK, are you sure?’. ‘Yeah, 100% sure’. OK, I don’t know, you have people up there and everything.

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“We came up to the start: full snow. Incredible. I hit the police car after a few corners up the hill also. It was for sure crazy. The margin was like zero, you had to be so careful and compared to some of the other guys who had chosen full studs or full snow, we lost minutes from the first few stages and I tell you, that was hard work!

“But that’s a part of the game. Sometimes even if you have a lot of people choosing the tires for you and they think they know the best it still goes wrong. We were just acting on the team’s choice from the information they got.

“I don’t know if you can use the word f*** up properly,” Solberg laughs, “but this was a f*** up.

“It was so different compared to going a little bit wrong or having a tire choice that worked on a different stage or something. It didn’t work on any stage unfortunately. Of course it was disappointing, I was not happy definitely.”

While Solberg may not have been happy, everybody watching from home or the side the stages certainly was. The quickly developing weather had completely transformed what was becoming a forgettable rally into an all-time classic. And better still, all of the tension, drama and mishap was being broadcast live on Eurosport at a time when live rallying coverage really was a rarity.

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“It was just brilliant, not for Hänninen and Solberg clearly, but I knew that I was lucky enough to be a part of something that was going to be remembered as a classic Monte,” Coley says.

“If I’m desperately honest and I don’t know how popular I’ll be for saying it, but I think IRC Monte Carlo set the template for WRC All Live. Everybody had always said you can’t cover a rally live, it can’t be done, it’s too big, it just can’t be done blah blah blah and basically Europsort and Rally Monte Carlo were like yes you can.

“What we’d usually struggled for on Eurosport was air time, because rallying wasn’t as big as tennis and even snooker believe it or not was huge for them; there are certain sports which have massive viewership and if you don’t like that sport you might not believe it but they’re ahead on the priority list of things like rallying. Luckily in January there isn’t much going on.

“The Australian Open is on but it’s at night because of the time difference, so they had this massive day which they could fill with whatever the hell they wanted and they chose to fill it up with rallying. 2009 was the first time they did it from Monte, I did it in 2010 but 2011 was the one.

“This was an absolutely classic Monte, and we were covering every stage as it unfolded live. Stage seven was wet Tarmac through to slush and then snow and ice at the top of the stage – really fresh, fluffy snow – and then we got down to the startline of stage eight and the whole road was covered in snow already at low altitude.

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“It was mega! You couldn’t believe it. When we were going back to their onboards they were literally at walking pace. It’s that horrible feeling you get when you’re in a British road car in the snow because we’re too daft to have snow tires, and you’re watching this ex-World Rally Champion with zero grip and Hänninen and they are haemorrhaging time.

“It was so good, just a joy to be a part of. I’m smiling now, you can hear it in my voice, I was just sitting there grinning at the screen and was like ‘what do I say next?’ because there was so much to say. Looking back now it would still rank as one of my highlights of something I’ve done on the telly.”

SS8 may not have detonated the leaderboard in the same fashion as the previous test had, but it wasn’t short of its drama either. As Coley mentioned, the conditions were deteriorating all the time meaning those on the wrong tires were punished even harder.

“The first stage [SS7] it was so, so slippy the climbing up and then we really hurried on the road section to change the tires to cross [them, two inters and two snow] and I almost, almost crashed on the road section because it was so slippy, full snow, full winter over there on the downhill,” Hänninen reveals.

“And then we didn’t even have time to put extra lights for the next one and then it was getting dark at the end of the next stage so it was extremely difficult!”

I believed I had the big opportunity to win Bryan Bouffier

It was damaging too. Heading into the loop with a 51.5s lead, Hänninen drove back to Valence 2m35.7s away from the top spot after struggling to just the 18th fastest time on Cimetière de Vassieux-Col de Gaudissart. Solberg was even slower and ended Thursday down in seventh, 1m13.4s behind Hänninen’s Škoda.

Bouffier meanwhile had gained 4m13.3s on Hänninen across just two stages to lead by 28s over Delecour who dominated SS8. Loix remained third but lost 1m01.3s to Bouffier on SS8 to fall to 1m05.5s back. Wilks lay fourth in his Peugeot UK 207, 20.6s up on Sarrazin who went from being 3.1s down on the lead to 1m41.1s in just 15 miles.

It all looked rather handsome for Bouffier, but the stats belie Bouffier’s lucky escape. Had the cards fallen differently, Bouffier’s rally could’ve gone to zero even faster than he’d made himself a hero.

He takes DirtFish back to the start of Thursday’s final stage: “We had one more stage left to go on snow, and I hadn’t used my studded tires so I put my studded tires on but at that time I didn’t have the biggest experience of snow.

“And now we are crossing the tire to keep the balance but that wasn’t the case at that time so I put the two studded tires at the front and kept the two snow tires on the back. Then I thought ‘OK I have to go flat out to make a big gap’.

“But the balance of the car was very difficult and I spun maybe one or two kilometers after the start of the stage. I had big luck because I hit the wall with the back of my car and fortunately it was in a proper place otherwise I could have bent the wheel and stopped the race very quickly. So I start again and it was much more safe but anyway it was enough to make a big gap.”

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The ordeal wasn’t over though. While the weather had calmed for the final day on Friday, there were still five special stages and 71 miles of rallying left to tackle. The Montauban sur l’Ouvèze-Eygalayes stage was dispatched of quickly in the morning (Sarrazin was quickest) before a long transit section down to Monaco for the conclusion of the rally.

Bouffier’s lead had swelled to 39.7s despite losing 23.2s to Sarrazin on SS9 as Delecour too was fading, struggling to just the 10th fastest time. Indeed the four-time WRC rally winner, who suspected his 207 was down on power compared to the factory cars, became a sitting duck for the chasing pack to overhaul as the 2011 Monte drew to a close.

“You know once I had a good gap I was quite optimistic,” Bouffier recounts, “just you had to keep concentrated because we had a lot of kilometers left to do until the end of the race so you have to stay strong.

“But really I believed I had the big opportunity to win.”

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That opportunity looked greater and greater as the stages were ticked off one by one. Again Bouffier dropped time on SS10 but again his lead increased to 48.1s as Loix became the first man to vault Delecour. With just one test remaining, Bouffier had a healthy 44.9s lead over Loix with Sarrazin – who won three of the final day’s stages – up to third at Delecour’s expense.

Bouffier guided his 207 S2000 to the ninth fastest time on Lantosque-Lucéram 2 – the rally’s final stage – but that would do nicely. The then-32-year-old had secured a truly memorable victory ahead of quality opposition on one of the trickiest editions of the Monte Carlo Rally there had been for years.

“It’s an amazing event because when you win Monte… other races are good to win but especially this race because it’s so tricky, it’s so unique,” Bouffier tells DirtFish.

“I was seventh overall so my pace was not so good and then I put on the proper tires and I used them properly during two stages, and then I had a very big gap and I had to manage that to the end of the rally. It’s not so many events where you can catch up the time so quickly in just two stages time so this was amazing.

“And it was good because you know OK it’s not WRC but I proved I could be quick as well in WRC in a private Ford behind the world champion Ogier [in 2014], but anyway this year we had a lot of very good drivers. My team was Sarrazin, Solberg so we had plenty of good drivers, a good team.

“Škoda was there with the official team, Peugeot as well so I was quite grateful to win. It was just following my French title with Peugeot as well so it was a very good start of the season.”

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Loix took a creditable second, 32.5s down on the winner, ahead of Wilks. The Briton was handed third place courtesy of Sarrazin checking into the final time control late and incurring a 30s time penalty. It was an unjust reward for the French racer who had been brilliant and won more stages than anybody else throughout the rally, but was a sensible move from Peugeot with Wilks in the books for a full IRC season and Sarrazin in Monte Carlo as a guest.

Delecour lost fourth place on the final stage but was still a strong fifth, 6.9s ahead of Hänninen who was rapid on Friday but not rapid enough to make up any positions. Vouilloz silently crept up to seventh after his SS1 puncture, profiting from an alternator failure for Solberg which led to his retirement on the transit section back to Monaco after the final stage.

However for all the plaudits Bouffier rightfully received, this was a difficult one to take for Hänninen. The Finn, already an IRC champion at this point, would of course go on to claim the 2011 SWRC and 2012 European Rally Championship titles as well as a Rally Finland podium with Toyota in 2017 after WRC stints with M-Sport and Hyundai, but he would never get so close to winning the Monte again.

It hurt, and Hänninen says the 2011 Monte Carlo Rally still stands as one of the biggest losses of his career.

“It’s difficult to forget for sure,” he tells DirtFish.

“As we spoke earlier, the margin after the first day was so good and almost quite a safe one; let’s say to keep that as the feeling and the confidence was that good. We had it in our hands to win the Monte Carlo.

“OK I have lost some other times the good results but this, how it happened and how good it was for sure it’s something special.”

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Monte Carlo Rally 2011 (January 19-22)

Final results

1 Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri (Peugeot 207 S2000) 3h32m55.6s
2 Freddy Loix/Frédéric Miclotte (Škoda Fabia S2000) +32.5s
3 Guy Wilks/Phil Pugh (Peugeot 207 S2000) +1m19.7s
4 Stéphane Sarrazin/Julien-Jacques Renucci (Peugeot 207 S2000) +1m21.9s
5 François Delecour/Dominique Savignoni (Peugeot 207 S2000) +1m22.4s
6 Juho Hänninen/Mikko Markkula (Škoda Fabia S2000) +1m29.3s
7 Nicolas Vouilloz/Bejamin Veillas (Škoda Fabia S2000) +4m47.8s
8 Jan Kopecký/Petr Starý (Škoda Fabia S2000) +7m45.9s
9 Giandomenico Basso/Mitia Dotta (Peugeot 207 S2000) +8m46.0s
10 Toni Gardemeister/Tomi Tuominen (Peugeot 207 S2000) +9m09.0s

Stage winners & itinerary

SS1 Le Moulinon-Antraigues (22.9 miles) – Sarrazin (23m35.6s)
SS2 Burzet-St Martial (25.5 miles) – Hänninen (22m39.6s)
SS3 St Bonnet le Froid-St Bonnet le Froid 1 (15.7 miles) – Hänninen (12m40.0s)
SS4 St Bonnet le Froid-St Bonnet le Froid 2 (15.7 miles) – Loix (12m37.2s)
SS5 St Jean-en-Royans-Font d’Urle 1 (14.3 miles) – Hänninen (11m51.0s)
SS6 Cimetière de Vassieux-Col de Gaudissart 1 (15 miles) – Bouffier (12m50.0s)
SS7 St Jean-en-Royans-Font d’Urle 2 (14.3 miles) – Bouffier (14m57.8s)
SS8 Cimetière de Vassieux-Col de Gaudissart 2 (15 miles) – Delecour (21m16.7s)
SS9 Montauban sur l’Ouvèze-Eygalayes (18.6 miles) – Sarrazin (17m45.3s)
SS10 Moulinet-La Bollène Vésubie 1 (14.5 miles) – Vouilloz (16m24.8s)
SS11 Lantosque-Lucèram 1 (11.7 miles) – Basso (13m28.2s)
SS12 Moulinet-La Bollène Vésubie 2 (14.5 miles) – Sarrazin (16m08.8s)
SS13 Lantosque-Lucèram 1 (11.7 miles) – Sarrazin (13m08.9s)

Leaders: SS1 Sarrazin; SS2-6 Hänninen; SS7-13 Bouffier

Key retirements:
SS1: Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (suspension); Henning Solberg/Ilka Minor (suspension); Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Klinger (accident); Chris Atkinson/Stéphane Prévot (accident)
SS2: Per-Gunnar Andersson/Emil Axelsson (suspension)
SS4: Bruno Magalhães/Paulo Grave (accident)
SS13: Petter Solberg/Chris Patterson (alternator)

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