Sébastien Ogier has won the 2023 World Rally Championship season opener and with it broke the record for the most Monte Carlo Rally victories by any driver.
The win, sealed by 18.8 seconds over reigning world champion Kalle Rovanperä, was co-driver Vincent Landais’ first in the WRC and Ogier’s ninth on his home event.
Thierry Neuville was third for Hyundai ahead of Elfyn Evans and M-Sport Ford’s new signing Ott Tänak who was fifth.
Although Ogier is now just a part-time player in the WRC, he ensured he was the headline act as soon as the Monte got underway on Thursday as he blasted to both of the evening’s stage wins in his Toyota.
And Ogier didn’t relent as the season’s first daylight action began, stretching his unbeaten start to 2023 to five tests to open out a healthy lead by Friday lunchtime.
The eight-time world champion led the Monte from start to finish – managing his pace to avoid the same fate as 2022 when a puncture cost him victory to Sébastien Loeb – to win and lead the world championship for the first time since 2021.
And bizarrely, it was Ogier’s 56th WRC win on Landais’ 56th WRC start.
“It’s huge, this is my rally, this is the one that gave me the dream,” Ogier said. “I’m so happy for Vincent because for me it’s nine but for him it’s his first WRC win and he did the perfect job. A famous win like this in Monte has no price.”
Second place for Rovanperä was a near-perfect start to his world title defense, as he edged his expected closest rivals for this year’s crown.
Evans was initially the driver that chased Ogier hardest, but a puncture for the Welshman on Friday morning’s final stage wrecked his victory or podium hopes.
Rovanperä soon established himself as Ogier’s chaser in-chief as the rally wore on, setting a blistering time on the final night stage of Saturday to put Ogier under a little pressure. But it proved to be a false dawn as Ogier had more than enough in the tank to get the job done on Sunday.
Neuville’s rally was a mixed bag as he took two stage wins on Saturday afternoon but was left to rue Hyundai’s setup choice on the pre-event test which he felt prevented him from challenging the Toyotas.
He was lucky to survive a half-spin at a hairpin on Sunday – Neuville’s i20 N Rally1 slotting perfectly into a gap between two barriers – but ultimately the 2023 Monte will be chalked up as one to learn from.
Evans must be wondering when his fortunes will change after his Friday puncture, but he proved that his pace is very much back on the money and that he should be a title contender going forwards.
Tänak’s restart to life as an M-Sport driver wasn’t as emphatic as he and the team may have hoped as he finished over two and a half minutes adrift of rally winner Ogier.
Dry and stable conditions weren’t ideal for Tänak who is still searching for an optimum setup in his new car, but his weekend was further complicated by intermittent power-steering failure on Saturday.
Sunday was all about tire saving for the powerstage where the 2019 world champion managed to snare four bonus points – beaten to powerstage victory by Rovanperä by half a second.
“For sure we need to improve and we will improve,” he said. “At least we scored some points, not like last three years so it’s a positive start already.”
Takamoto Katsuta had started the final stage just 0.1s behind Tänak but was lucky to even salvage sixth place, finishing just 14.9s ahead of Dani Sordo after his car broke on the powerstage.
“After a tight corner opens something broke straightaway and the car was washing out to the mountain,” Katsuta explained. “We were lucky the moment happened when it wasn’t high speed but we hit the rear.”
Prior to the powerstage the Monte was an impressive showing from Katsuta who was fourth after stage one only to lose bucket loads of time on Thursday’s final test with a broken handbrake.
Sordo endured a trying weekend where he just never quite managed to find the ultimate pace. Hybrid problems on both Saturday and Sunday were a further complication, but he did manage to beat new team-mate Esapekka Lappi by 3.8s.
Lappi would likely have beaten Sordo were it not for a rear-right puncture on Saturday, but he too often struggled to find the right balance from his i20 N Rally1.
Pierre-Louis Loubet was the only manufacturer Rally1 driver who failed to finish round one.
Loubet was seventh on Friday before a stone in a cut broke his power-steering, prompted a brief off and forced him to heroically complete three full stages with extremely heavy steering.
But once his car was restored to full health, he made a mistake on Saturday’s opening stage – slid on the icy final corner over a bridge, clipped the barrier and damaged the rear-right corner of his Puma. Retirement would beckon.
Loubet then reappeared on Sunday but a broken handbrake on one stage and then a technical problem before the penultimate test of the rally forced him to retire again, making it a rally to forget for the 25-year-old and new co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul.
In WRC2, Nikolay Gryazin dominated the Monte Carlo Rally from start to finish, despite recording just a slim 4.5s victory over Yohan Rossel.
Gryazin’s margin had been over 45s before a puncture on Saturday’s final stage brought Rossel back into play. Rossel then started to chip away at Gryazin’s advantage and put in a spirited run on the powerstage, but the Toksport driver did enough to repel Rossel’s advances.
Gryazin’s win earns him an early championship lead and delivered the new Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 a win on its WRC debut.
Stéphane Lefebvre and Pepe López were embroiled in an entertaining scrap for third, swapping positions after almost every stage until Lefebvre punctured on Sunday morning.
That left López unchallenged to claim his first WRC2 podium ahead of Erik Cais and M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux.
Oliver Solberg finished sixth in the Rally2 class – setting several fastest stage times but losing time to a puncture on Thursday and then a mistake on Saturday when he ran wide, kissed a bank and broke a toe link on his Fabia.
Solberg’s WRC2 campaign however will begin in Sweden as he didn’t elect to register for points on round one.