Sebastian Loeb demonstrated his mastery of the mountains, and the speed of his Citroen Xsara WRC, at the Monte Carlo Rally this weekend, taking his third consecutive Monte Carlo victory at this, the most famous of the World Rally Championship events.
Loeb was thrilled: "The perfect rally! Very much like last year. It's a very tricky event, and lots of drivers made mistakes, but fortunately we did not."
Instead, it was Gronholm and fourth-placed Petter Solberg who ran into trouble on SS12. Therefore, at the finish, it was Loeb taking the spoils of victory in dominant style, winning over Toni Gardemeister by nearly three minutes.
And Gronholm's feelings for the rally were not quite like Loeb's: "I hate this rally," the Finn fumed. "For a moment I thought I was driving in a rally, but I guess I should have been just walking!"
And this is exactly what happened, on this stage filled with mountain switchback. Shortly after the famed Col de Turini, there was snow on the road, catching Solberg off guard, and the Norwegian ace slid into the wall, losing his left front wheel and retiring from the event.
"I'm extremely disappointed," said Solberg, heart-broken. "It seems like this sort of luck is with me every time in Monte Carlo. No mistakes all rally, we're catching up places, everything's perfect -- and then this."
Shortly after that, Gronholm hit the same patch and the same wall, but his Peugeot incurred a little bit less damage, so he was able to limp to the end of the stage, but at the cost of over five additional minutes, dropping him from second to fifth.
"We managed to get to the end of the stage and to service in Monaco on time despite only having three wheels! Thankfully the team fixed my car and I was able to finish, but it should have been on the podium."
Loeb knew of the dangers of Col de Turini as well, and it may have been a combination of caution and Citroen teamwork that spared the French ace from the fate that befell Solberg and Gronholm.
"Just after the summit, some spectators put some snow on the road -- a real trap!" Loeb recalled. "I had that possibility in my pacenotes, and I asked my safety crew to note where there is snow on the sides and where most spectators are standing."
"I was also warned by the marshals that (Solberg and Gronholm) got caught," Loeb continued. "It's a corner which we could drive in fourth gear, but I arrived at 30 km/h and actually drove through at 20 km/h. You really have to anticipate because if you react when you're on the snow it's already too late."
"I'm so, so happy," explained the always-calm Ford pilot. "It's a great result for us and to achieve early in the season makes it even better. We had a good fight with Petter and Marcus but when I heard that they had problems, then I knew it would be OK."
In third was tarmac specialist Gilles Panizzi, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05 in the Japanese marque's return to the "big leagues." Panizzi showed the potential of the Lancer, climbing steadily up the leaderboard and finishing on the podium and almost two minutes ahead of Peugeot driver Markko Martin.
"My team needed this success and now they and everyone else can see that Mitsubishi is back", Panizzi described his feelings after taking the first podium for Mitsubishi since 2001. "Today we have arrived! This result is very important for everyone's confidence and I feel good that the mechanics and engineers have something to be very proud about. To finish third, at home, and more importantly on the most famous event in the championship is incredible. I feel fantastic!"
Martin, who switched from Ford to Peugeot for 2005, was still finding his comfort zone with the 307 WRC, but a steady drive brought him a fourth place -- ahead of Gronholm -- and some valuable points for the new championship season.
Skoda's young sensation Alexandre Bengue, who set several top-three stage times, ended up just outside the points in ninth place -- he, too, carried the five-minute penalty for crashing and then restarting the rally.
But it was all Loeb in the end -- this was his rally, no question. Not only was this his third Monte victory on the trot -- a feat matched only by past heroes Sandro Munari, Walter Rohrl and Tommi Makinen -- it might have been a record fourth one, had he not been penalized for an illegal tire change in the 2002 event, handing that victory to Makinen.
But as things have turned out, with Loeb's skill on the tough roads of Monte Carlo, he will certainly be a threat to match Makinen's record of four consecutive wins, come 2006. Of course that will depend on a future ride as the PSA group has declared they will pull out of the WRC at the end of this season -- a move that affects both Citroen and Peugeot.