Sébastien Loeb has claimed his 80th World Rally Championship win, and first for any team other than Citroën, in pulsating fashion after a final stage showdown with old rival Sébastien Ogier.
Ogier had led the 2022 Monte Carlo Rally since Saturday afternoon and had looked set for victory until, on the penultimate stage of the rally, he picked up a front-left puncture and dropped to 9.5 seconds behind.
But it was Loeb and Isabelle Galmiche who eventually triumphed by 10.5 seconds over Ogier and Benjamin Veillas.
Ogier was quicker on the powerstage by nine seconds, but in his eagerness to steal the victory back he jumped the start and therefore copped a 10s penalty.
It was Galmiche’s first WRC victory – the first overall win for a female competitor since Fabrizia Pons won the Monte alongside Piero Liatti in 1997 – and M-Sport’s first win since Rally GB 2018.
Craig Breen and Paul Nagle finished third – the duo’s fourth podium in as many starts – on their M-Sport debut.
M-Sport’s double podium has helped it to establish an early lead over Toyota in the manufacturers’ standings.
As Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport each unveiled their brand-new and first-ever hybrid rally cars, anticipation was high as to which team would make the brightest start.
Reigning world champion Ogier, who has regressed to a part-time program this season, restored natural order on the first evening however as he won both stages to open up a slender lead over old rival Loeb.
But it was Loeb, driving for the M-Sport team he had defeated for so many years in his heyday, that was quickest on the season’s first full day – winning four of Friday’s stages in a row to streak clear out front.
Elfyn Evans was briefly up to second as Ogier floundered on an icy SS5, but Ogier soon jumped back ahead and began to take small chunks out of Loeb’s lead.
The two great champions drew level after SS10 before Ogier nosed ahead on Saturday afternoon; the final stage of the day shaping up to be a major turning point.
Loeb had carried two studded tires in his trunk while Ogier had opted for two winters, so a tactical battle between the pair was expected. But as it transpired neither driver took the safe option and went for slicks instead – Loeb making that decision first and Ogier spotting it on the road section, so deciding to copy his rival to negate any potential advantage he might obtain.
On the stage Ogier was braver and beat Loeb by 16.1s to move into a 21.1s lead, giving him an easier run on Sunday with a gap to protect.
Everything was going to plan as Ogier actually narrowly extended his lead across the morning but astonishingly his front-left tire punctured on the penultimate stage and dropped him back behind Loeb once more.
Ogier gave it everything but he wouldn’t deny Loeb an eighth Monte Carlo Rally victory, moving him level with Ogier as the most successful drivers on the event.
If it wasn’t for Ogier’s jump-start, he would have lost the rally by just 0.5s.
“For sure I feel really happy. I didn’t expect so much when I came here. It was a great fight, Ogier was really fast, I struggled a bit yesterday even this morning but at the end…,” trailed Loeb’s words as he was mobbed at the finish.
Ogier explained his stall: “There was a strange noise on the engine at the start, maybe I was a bit disturbed I released a little earlier, I don’t know.
“I think I can keep the head up. To be honest I did the job this weekend but unfortunately with Pirelli when we go in cut it can happen always,” he added on the puncture that cost him victory on the previous stage.
Breen’s podium might have effectively made him championship leader as neither Loeb nor Ogier will contest a full season, but fourth-placed Kalle Rovanperä – who secured five powerstage points to Breen’s none – actually heads him in the championship .
Nevertheless, while Breen was never on the ultimate pace, he was hugely encouraged by the potential of the Puma Rally1 Hybrid and opted to take it steadily on his first Monte Carlo Rally since 2018 – an approach that paid off handsomely.
Evans had looked set to finish a comfortable third, but a mistake on Saturday morning, a mistake he called “clumsy”, left him stranded on the edge of the road and cost him 20 minutes.
A puncture on Sunday made a bad rally even worse, but Evans did at least score four points on the powerstage to start his season.
Toyota team-mate Rovanperä struggled badly with the feeling in his new GR Yaris Rally1 on Thursday and Friday, not even featuring inside the top 10 after the first evening.
But after making some changes and adapting his driving style, Rovanperä was on the money on Saturday and began to climb up the leaderboard as others hit trouble.
Gus Greensmith was one such driver. He scored an emotional first WRC stage win on Friday but an engine issue hampered his progress on Saturday, restricting himself to fifth place at the finish.
Thierry Neuville’s list of problems was staggering – labelling his i20 N Rally1 ‘scary’ to drive on the first day and encountering several little niggles as the event wore on.
A front-right damper failure was the biggest issue that completely wrecked his Saturday, but Neuville did at least manage to make the finish in sixth unlike both of this team-mates.
But he ended the rally exhausted, taking deep breathes and throwing his head back into his seat at the finish after commenting: “I gave it everything.”
Ott Tänak had been firmly in an all M-Sport and Hyundai fight for fourth through seventh places along with Breen, Greensmith and Neuville, but the 2019 world champion’s event capitulated on Saturday.
On the day’s first stage a puncture dumped him to eighth overall, but it got worse on the final stage of the morning loop as through an icy section on slick tires, Tänak locked up and met a rockface which caused unrepairable damage to his i20.
He made it out of the stage but had to retire on the road section with his windshield covered in fluid. A second puncture ultimately made this academic anyway as with just one spare, Tänak couldn’t have legally driven to the tire fitting zone anyway.
Oliver Solberg’s debut with the factory team was even more fraught. Struggling to hear co-driver Elliott Edmondson over the intercom on Thursday evening, his major problem would be exhaust fumes that were infiltrating the cockpit of his i20 N Rally1 – a problem that the team struggled to cure.
It led to Solberg dropping down a bank and losing over half an hour on Saturday before he eventually retired after Sunday’s first stage – both members of the crew doing so as a health precaution after breathing in toxic fumes.
Adrien Fourmaux was the other major retirement. Running an impressive fourth overall after Thursday night, the M-Sport driver crashed out on Friday’s first stage after missing his braking, clipping a bank and flying off the road over a protective barrier.
Thankfully the strength of the new Rally1 car held out and Fourmaux and Alexandre Coria were both OK, but it was a far from ideal start to their season.
By comparison, Takamoto Katsuta’s event was a breeze even if he ended it “so disappointed with myself”. He ditched his GR Yaris Rally1 on Saturday and dropped 12 minutes but managed to climb back inside the top 10 to eighth place.
Andreas Mikkelsen, returning for another season of WRC2, netted the class win and seventh overall – mirroring his result of last season – alongside new co-driver Torstein Eriksen.
This victory was claimed in far less dominant fashion than 12 months ago though as Mikkelsen survived when plenty of his rivals didn’t.
Eric Camilli was the first to fall, breaking his suspension on Friday, while Stéphane Lefebvre then brought the challenge but was given a 30-minute penalty for a route note crew infringement and then ripped a wheel off his Citroën for good measure.
Last year’s WRC3 champion Yohan Rossel then assumed the position of Mikkelsen’s biggest threat and looked to be causing him some real headaches, but when he should’ve profited from a Mikkelsen puncture Rossel actually lost time as he went off into the same ditch that Katsuta had.
A puncture on Friday eventually ruined Rossel’s character-building rally, paving the way clear for Erik Cais to steal second in WRC2 and ninth overall – narrowly missing out on eighth spot to Katsuta, who moved past on the final stage, by just 4.5s.
Nikolay Gryazin rounded out the top 10 and the WRC2 podium in his Toksport Škoda after a gutsy drive. Gryazin lost close to three minutes on Thursday night with his rear-left brake disc on fire but kept his head down thereafter and began to pick off his rivals one by one as they ran into problems.
That was despite a spin on the powerstage that was lucky to emerge unscathed from.
American Sean Johnston recorded his best ever WRC result with 11th overall and fourth in WRC2, but only by 5.5s as Grégoire Munster attacked and won the powerstage as he wanted to “show what we can do” after a puncture earlier on Sunday.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 8m35.843s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +0.861s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2.593s
4 Sébastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) +6.976s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota) +8.025s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +8.748s
Final positions after SS17
1 Loeb/Galmiche (M-Sport Ford) 3h00m32.8s
2 Ogier/Veillas (Toyota) +10.5s
3 Craig Breen/Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +1m39.8s
4 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +2m16.2s
5 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +6m33.4s
6 Neuville/Waydaeghe (Hyundai) +7m42.6s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda) +11m33.8s
8 Katsuta/Johnston (Toyota) +12m24.7s
9 Erik Cais/Petr Tesínský (M-Sport Ford) +12m29.2s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Škoda) +13m41.3s
1 Loeb 27 2 Ogier 18 3 Rovanperä 17 4 Breen 15 5 Neuville 11 6 Greensmith 10 7 Mikkelsen 6 8 Katsuta 4 9 Evans 4 10 Cais 2
1 M-Sport Ford 42 2 Toyota Gazoo Racing 39 3 Hyundai Motorsport 13 4 Toyota Next Generation 8
1 Mikkelsen 28 2 Cais 19 3 Gryazin 15 4 Gregoire Munster 14 5 Yohan Rossel 13 6 Sean Johnston 12
1 Sami Pajari 29 2 Jan Černý 23 3 Enrico Brazzoli 18