CitroÃ«n-Michelin's SÃ©bastien Loeb: The new "Mr. Monaco" For the third year in a row, the victory champagne was for CitroÃ«n- Michelin's SÃ©bastien Loeb at the finish ceremony of the WRC's traditional curtain-raiser, the Monte ...
Citroën-Michelin's Sébastien Loeb: The new "Mr. Monaco"
For the third year in a row, the victory champagne was for Citroën- Michelin's Sébastien Loeb at the finish ceremony of the WRC's traditional curtain-raiser, the Monte Carlo Rally. True, his 2002 win was later snatched from his hands because of a minor technical infringement, but the Frenchman's speed in the icy Alps since the beginning of his WRC career has rapidly established him as one of the most successful drivers on the celebrated event. Citroën-Michelin begins the defence of its 2003 title with an emphatic win, although Ford-Michelin emerges on top of the Manufacturers' classification thanks to the double podium of Markko Märtin (2nd) and François Duval (3rd). Michelin runners dominated the top six positions at the flag to claim the French tyre firm's 19th Monte win since the creation of the World Championship in 1973, its 7th success in the last 10 years.
Four-times World Champion Tommi Mäkinen retired from rallying at the end of 2003 but his record on the Monte Carlo Rally will always be remembered as one of the finest in the event's modern history. Sandro Munari, Walter Röhrl, Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz have all left their mark on the winter classic, but only Mäkinen can claim four straight wins to his name, including three with Mitsubishi-Michelin between 1999 and 2001.
So, when the Finn cites Sébastien Loeb as his worthy successor as Master of this prestigious competition, it rings as praise indeed, especially since many view Loeb's performance here in 2002 as a moral victory for the Frenchman : he was fastest on the stages but saw first place handed to Mäkinen days after the finish because of a minor technical infringement. Had it not been for this change, their respective scores would now in fact be three wins each!
This time round, as in 2003, there was no doubt about who was in control of the season's opener. The Citroën-Michelin driver eased into the lead on the afternoon of Day 1 and consequently controlled from in front, calling every tyre choice just right despite the complex conditions while his most threatening rivals were either slowed or eliminated by a variety of accidents and problems.
His own team-mate Carlo Sainz crashed out on the morning of Day 2, while early leader Marcus Grönholm (4th, Peugeot-Michelin) was admits to feeling uncomfortable over the challenging cocktail of surfaces encountered over the three days. And with defending champion Petter Solberg (7th, Subaru) never really on the pace, it was Ford-Michelin's pair - Markko Märtin (2nd) and François Duval (3rd) - who emerged as the eventual winner's closest chasers.
But even they could do nothing to shake Loeb's confidence as he proceeded to carve out the convincing margin of 1m 28s by the end of Day 2 before easing off over Sunday's four final tests to still win by over a minute.
Ironically, although Citroën's success allowed it to pocket ten points in the Principality, Märtin and Duval's podium performance sees Ford take the lead in the Manufacturers' points table. It is the first time it has led since Autumn 2001 and this comes as a welcome incentive for the British- based team which, like all concerned, knows that consistency and reliability could well prove decisive factors in this year's series.
Peugeot-Michelin finally put an end to its recent Monte Carlo jinx by getting both its cars to the finish, a particularly welcome feat since the rally marked the debut of the brand new 307 WRC, replacement of the 206 WRC. Grönholm gave a glimpse of the new machine's potential by moving momentarily into the lead on the opening day but was finally happy to settle for 4th, one place ahead of his 2004 team-mate, Freddy Loix.
Gilles Panizzi completed Michelin's domination of the leaderboard by reaching the finish in 6th place with another car that was competing in anger for the first time, the Mitsubishi Lancer WRC. His team was delighted with this result given that this maiden outing was viewed as little more than a full-scale test session, but the Frenchman rewarded their efforts with two Manufacturers' points and a score of four top-five stage times. His young Italian team-mate Gigi Galli crashed out on Day 1..
Michelin's Monte legend continues, and so does the work.
Michelin on top again in Monaco. Michelin runners continued their supremacy on the Monte Carlo Rally (top-six finishers in 2004 and 7 outright wins in the past 10 years), but the firm's research staff knows that success on the winter classic never comes with complacency.
Once again, the celebrated Michelin D10 (a studded "intermediate" product and a cornerstone of Michelin's Monte range) proved an ideal match for the mixed conditions encountered early in the rally (dry, wet, damp, ice, snow).
However, engineers waiting at the end of SS12 were particularly pleased to note the performance of a new product it had developed especially for this year's rally, a new "zero minus" ("0-") compound Michelin N.
The sub-zero temperatures and mixture of damp and dry surfaces on SS12 and SS13 prompted Ford-Michelin's Markko Märtin to fit this tyre for Sunday morning's first group of stages. Result: he was fastest on SS12 and also set the best combined time for the two stages of that group.
Michelin's ice note crews spot on. Congratulations to winner Sébastien Loeb who got tyre choice right every time despite the often complex mix of conditions.
A special mention also, however, to Michelin's own ice-note crews whose detailed "100 metres by 100 metres" analysis of the surface of every stage enabled technicians to supply its partner teams and drivers with valuable objective information when the time came to weigh up the different tyre options for each group.
Next round: Sweden (February 6th-8th 2004)