Sebastien Loeb repeated his feat of last year's victory at the Monte Carlo Rally by taking the win today in the 2004 World Rally Championship season opener. The Citroen driver edged Fords' Markko Martin and Francois Duval with over one minute to spare, and in spite of not scoring a single stage win on today's final leg.
Today's final leg started with Loeb holding the edge over Duval and Martin. The contest for second overall was the main focus of the day, and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm was ready to pounce if either of the two Ford drivers made a mistake.
Martin opened the day when by setting the fastest time on SS12 over teammate Duval and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm. Martin admitted yesterday that he lost time to the leader due to the fog, a condition that does not suit the Estonian. Today he was pleased with the improved weather conditions and the route location being confined to the harbour area in the Principality of Monaco.
"It's been an incredibly tough rally," expressed Martin. "We've had snow, ice and fog, I was close to leading on Friday but on Saturday morning I lost so much time in the fog. Perhaps I need to eat more carrots!"
The 2003 WRC champion Petter Solberg finally won his first stage: SS13. Duval stayed ahead of Martin by finishing second whilst Martin was fourth. Gronholm had third on the stage, 21 seconds adrift of Martin for the third podium overall position.
As Loeb took life easy this Sunday, staying on the top of the leaderboard, the Frenchman knew that the battle for second was going to be decided on the final SS15 stage. Gronholm's only hope for a podium was to take the stage victory and let the chips fall where they may between the two Ford drivers. If either had a problem, Gronholm could inherit a position.
Alas, that was not the case for the Peugeot driver as Martin placed his Focus in second to notch the second overall by five seconds. Third overall Duval was fourth on the stage behind Loeb.
Martin had a huge grin as he reflected on his best-ever Monte finish, "I wasn't smiling yesterday, because I knew there was one day left. But now it's over, so I'm happy. Second was good, I'd have been happy with any podium place. And we're leading the manufacturers' points -- that's good, very good."
The two-three podium finish put the Ford Focus team in the driver's seat for the manufacturers title with valuable points. "I'm really happy to start the year on the podium," stated Duval. "I've enjoyed this weekend a lot, taken no risks and made no mistakes."
Gronholm reflected at the end of the day, "I'm glad it's all over! I've always found the changing weather conditions of this event very difficult, so fourth place is not a bad result at all."
"The most important thing is that the new 307 WRC has been both fast and reliable," added the twice World Rally champion. "So I feel very positive about the rest of the season."
The standings at the end of the challenging difficult Monte Carlo Rally showed that once again, the WRC season will be a fight to the finish.
Loeb took the season opener crown but closely following him for the overall chase for the 2004 WRC title were Martin, Duval, Gronholm, Freddy Loix, Gilles Panizzi and of course, the defending title holder Solberg.
Panizzi continued, "To finish and score points is very good. I am confident with the team and the car, and this is the start of a new chapter in my motorsport career; I have found a good team."