Loeb makes triumphant return at Monte Carlo

Sebastien Loeb joined elite company with his return to the World Rally Championship, as he took a convincing victory in the Monte Carlo Rally, the first round of the 2007 championship, his mountain-biking injury clearly well healed, and the new ...

Sebastien Loeb joined elite company with his return to the World Rally Championship, as he took a convincing victory in the Monte Carlo Rally, the first round of the 2007 championship, his mountain-biking injury clearly well healed, and the new Citroen C4 clearly a force to contend with.

With his fourth victory -- with two second places to add to those wins -- he joins rally legends Sandro Munari, Walter Rohrl and Tommi Makinen as the only four-time winners of the legendary alpine event.

"It's really fantastic because there were so many unknowns before the start, what with the new C4, my arm, our rivals and the new stages," Loeb said. "I also knew it wouldn't be easy against Dani Sordo who had a great run. It's nice to have won the Monte for a fourth time and we couldn't have dreamed of a better start to the season. To have finished 1st and 2nd will be a huge morale-booster for the team."

Loeb won the rally, run over a largely different route than previously, with a convincing 38-second margin over his teammate Sordo. With a Thursday start in the darkness, a finish on the Monaco F1 course, and unseasonably warm weather throughout, it was all rather unusual, but Loeb took it in stride, dominating when it mattered on Friday, and driving consistently thereafter to ensure a victory.

Sordo drove one of his career-best WRC performances, and impressed for the first time since last year's Rallye Deutschland. The young Spaniard had seemed a little bit lost while Loeb was out with his injury, but the return of the three-time WRC champion seems to have invigorated his junior teammate as well.

A further 45 seconds behind Sordo was two-time champion Marcus Gronholm, also driving conservatively for the second half of the rally to ensure six championship points in the season opener. With his Ford Focus RS WRC experiencing some gearbox troubles on Friday, and the team's tire choices being less than optimal, the Finn was never able to threaten Loeb for victory.

"It didn't seem like the Rallye Monte Carlo because the weather was so strange," Gronholm summed up the rally. "It seemed more like a really difficult asphalt rally with the wrong tyres. There wasn't such a big difference between my pace and that of Seb compared with last year."

The team suffered a disappointment in today's final stage, as Subaru's Chris Atkinson was able to outpace Gronholm's young teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, and steal away fourth place overall, by the thinnest of margins -- mere 0.2 seconds separated the two at the finish.

"I'm really disappointed to lose fourth but happy with the way the weekend went," the young Finn said. "I enjoyed a brilliant fight with Chris and just lost out. But full credit to him, he won fair and square. I just lost some tenths entering a few of the turns ..."

With tarmac rallies always having been Loeb's strong point -- and three of Sordo's four 2006 podiums were on the hard surface as well -- the Ford team is still confident, as focus shifts to the snowy surfaces in Sweden and Norway.

For Subaru, things looked bad for a while, but Atkinson's stage win in Monaco ended the rally on a high note for the team. Having switched to BFGoodrich tires after a 2006 season to forget, it was exactly the morale-booster that the team needed to start the new season.

"Getting fourth place back from Mikko on this stage is a massive result for us," Atkinson beamed. "To be fighting like this on asphalt is so encouraging for the team. It was fantastic to do it in front of so many people and in this setting. I think this is one of the best rallies we've ever had. It feels like we've reached a new level on asphalt and the team is coming along very well."

Subaru's lead driver, Petter Solberg, took sixth after some struggles on the second leg, 44 seconds off Atkinson's pace, but still 26 seconds ahead of the top privateer entry, Toni Gardemeister.

Gardemeister, driving a self-entered 2005-spec Mitsubishi Lancer after a sponsorship deal collapsed shortly before the rally, was satisfied with the outcome, even if he was not able to keep up with Solberg's works Subaru.

"My goal was a top-three finish," the Finn said. "If the conditions had been difficult, that could have well been possible. But now I will drive at least in Sweden and Norway, and there I will have a chance to do much better than here."

Jan Kopecky took the final point with an eighth-place finish in his works-supported Skoda Fabia WRC, entered by Czech Rally Team, driving with consistency belying his young age. Kopecky, like many drivers from western and central Europe, grew up driving on asphalt roads, though, so he will have a new challenge on the next two rounds.

Manfred Stohl took tenth for OMV Kronos Citroen, 37 seconds behind ninth-placed local hero, Jean-Marie Cuoq.

Stobart M-Sport was looking strong through much of the weekend, with new WRC talent Jari-Matti Latvala running in a manufacturer points-paying position, but Latvala got caught out by some gravel on Saturday's final stage, and slid his Focus into a wall. Stobart had to be satisfied with Matthew Wilson's 12th and Henning Solberg's 14th places.

The WRC now moves on to the "white fluffy stuff" in the Swedish Rally in three weeks' time, with Rally Norway the following weekend.

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Sébastien Loeb , Walter Rohrl , Manfred Stohl , Jari-Matti Latvala , Toni Gardemeister , Jan Kopecky , Henning Solberg , Matthew Wilson , Chris Atkinson
Teams Citroën World Rally Team , M-Sport