A brand-new season of the World Rally Championship was launched last week in the frigid mountain passes of southern France. Steeped in history and glamour, the “Monte” is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious racing events in the world, with a reputation for drama and stunning natural beauty stretching all the way back to 1911. Speaking to press Thursday, former WRC champion Ari Vatanen described the rally as “like a princess, like the only girl of a rich family, somewhat spoiled, difficult. You can’t tame this event.”
Roughly 75 percent of the route was new for 2015, offering a fresh batch of challenges to the teams and drivers that dared to traverse the treacherous tarmac stages. Chief amongst them was Sébastien Loeb, past winner of an unprecedented nine consecutive WRC championship titles, who would make a guest appearance in a Citroen DS 3 at this year’s event for “fun”.
Stepping up to challenge this former titan of the sport was another Frenchman, current champion Sébastien Ogier, who arrived with every intention of beginning his run at a third world title.
Stage 1 kicked off Thursday night in the freezing, inky darkness, as each car fired up its headlight pods to help illuminate the highly variable road conditions. Tire choice was particularly tricky, with half of the stage on exposed tarmac, half covered in snow, and plenty of slippery ice patches dotted in between.
As current champion, it was Ogier who would set the pace with a blast into 2015. Given the particularly hazardous road conditions presented by these first two stages of the season, the Volkswagen driver wisely exercised a good deal of discretion, but still managed to net the second fastest time of the day.
Unfortunately, there was no such luck for Hyundai driver Dani Sordo, who was the first to fall victim to unpredictable grip levels. Misjudging the braking into a left-hander early in his run, Sordo accidently parked the frontend of his i20 into a ditch. Co-driver Marc Martí exited the vehicle to physically encourage it back onto the road, resulting in a 40 second loss for the Spanish driver.
But it was Loeb who handily took the rally lead, cutting ahead of Ogier’s time by more than 13 seconds. While the former champion may have touted his WRC return as simply an excursion for enjoyment, it was clear from the off that Loeb’s tour of Monte Carlo would be anything but a pleasure cruise.
Click past the jump to read more about the 2015 Rallye Monte Carlo.
The picturesque French countryside was once again obscured on Friday, this time by a thick layer of fog cover. The road conditions remained just as variable, offering the same mix of dry tarmac, snow, and ice.
Ogier pushed hard to close in on Loeb, chipping away at the former champion’s lead bit by bit, finally overtaking him on stage 7. The Citroen driver responded with maximum attack, but ended up sliding wide on the last stage, clipping something solid with the left rear of his DS 3. Although the impact was at a relatively low speed, the damage to the suspension was extensive, setting a wheel at an unpleasant angle and forcing Loeb to retire for the day.
Two additional drivers felt the Monte’s sting on Friday, with former Formula 1 racer Robert Kubica having a high-speed off in his privately funded Ford Fiesta, and Citroen pilot Kris Meeke meeting a hillside after hitting an icy apex.
With Loeb relegated to the back of the field, Volkswagen was looking to solidify its position on the leaderboard. Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala, and Andreas Mikkelsen bore the VW torch in the top three positions respectively, as Ford’s Ott Tanak sat at fourth, and Citroen’s Mads Ostberg sat at fifth.
Unfortunately, the multitude of rally fans that swarmed to get a glimpse of the action on the first stage Saturday inadvertently caused its cancellation, with the event organizers citing safety concerns due to the large crowd.
Thankfully, the remainder of the day’s stages got underway without interruption. While the presence of ice and snow persisted, the majority of the roads exhibited enough clear tarmac to prompt the use of racing slicks, which made for highly contrasting paces between wet and dry sections. This incongruity provoked Norway’s Mads Ostberg to remark, “a few places I would like to be Flintstone, just open the car and use my legs because it’s not moving at all on the ice.” Ostberg finished the day in fourth as the leading Citroen.
Despite a heavy off the day before, Kubica was back and driving a blazing pace, obviously more comfortable with the clearer conditions, even outpacing the rally leader for singular stage times.
However, Saturday was not without incident. Dani Sordo took yet another trip off-course, but thankfully was able to claw his way to a fifth-place position going into Sunday, only losing a few seconds.
The most spectacular off for the day went to Ott Tanak, who planted his Ford deep into the French flora. The odds on freeing his blue oval looked slim, but thanks to the amazing efforts of a legion of rally fans, Tanak managed to get back on the road and complete the stage. Although he lost 18 minutes, Tanak’s crew worked feverishly to fix the mangled Ford and give the Estonian driver one more chance to finish the rally, replacing the clutch, gearbox, and everything else damaged by the crash in just 33 minutes.
Maintaining the right balance between speed and discretion can be quite challenging, especially when you consider how live in-car split time updates are banned this year. This made Ogier’s task of conserving the lead without overt aggression far from easy, which let Latvala close the gap between the top two positions to just 42 seconds going into Sunday.
The final day of the Rallye Monte Carlo included fast, fluid tarmac strung together by a succession of hairpins, as well as the world famous Col de Turini stage, a particularly popular destination for fans during the Group B era of WRC. This year, the iconic stretch of pavement was devoid of the characteristic snow covering, instead sporting copious amounts of ice, which made for a slightly slower pace than in years past. Compounding this were spectators throwing snow onto the dry road sections.
Contention for the first vital points of 2015 made for some interesting battles, with many drivers pushing hard to scrape together whatever they could manage, leaving some caught out in the open. Kubica, for example, was forced to retire due to a crash after the flying finish on the second to last stage, despite putting in solid stage times after his excursion on Friday. Fighting for fifth, Sordo eventually lost the position to his Hyundai teammate, Thierry Neuville, by a margin of less than a second on the final stage.
Sébastian Loeb, however, was able to claw his way up to an eighth place finish after a retirement on Friday set him back deep into the field. Mads Ostberg completed his run for a fourth place finish.
But it was a calm, collected drive from the top three VW drivers, who tended to their respective positions carefully for a complete podium lockout, giving a third place finish to Andreas Mikkelsen, second place to Jari-Matti Latvala, and the rally win to Sébastien Ogier.
With the first event now written into the history books, it looks to be another dominant season for the Volkswagen Polo and Sébastien Ogier, as few could match the consistency and speed exhibited by the current world champion in Monte Carlo. Hopefully, we’ll see Loeb make further guest appearances in a WRC car in the future, as there is a very good chance that he might be the only other rally driver in the word capable of dethroning Ogier.
Mark your calendar for February 12, when Sweden will play host for round two of the WRC with even more frozen roads and plenty of lean into the snow banks.