“Look at this,” said David Richards, chairman of the Prodrive team that runs the MINI WRC Team, as he surveyed the glittering harbour of Monte Carlo, packed cheek by jowl with yachts and beautiful people. “This is exactly where we need to be, isn’t it?”
Not for nothing is this event the most famous rally in the world, in the same way that the Monaco Grand Prix is the jewel in Formula One’s crown.
There was a sense that the World Rally Championship had truly come home - and that was certainly shared by Sebastien Loeb. He already started the rally as the most successful driver in its history, and he consolidated that distinction with the 68th victory of his career.
Loeb had not driven these roads since 2008 - the second year that the event returned to the Ardeche - but he carried on exactly where he left off.
Without taking anything away from the brilliant Frenchman, he benefitted from two big let-offs though. Firstly, the exit of Jari-Matti Latvala on the first day, when he had an advantage of more than 30 seconds over Loeb. If - and it’s a big if - Latvala had continued to make the right tyre choices for the rest of the rally, this would have been a lot of time to haul back.
Secondly, the weather was a complicating factor on only two of the five days.
Rallye Monte-Carlo hinges on tyre choice, and the more variable the conditions, the more opportunities there are to lose time. The nightmare scenario is to find yourself with non-studded tyres on ice: a situation that cost Petter Solberg the best part of a minute on just one stage on day two, and effectively cost him a shot at second place.
“I wouldn’t have liked to have been Petter then,” pointed out Loeb, who managed to get the choices right pretty much all of the time: a reflection of the superb teamwork and organisation within Citroen as well as Loeb’s own prodigious talent.
The DS3 WRC was slightly altered from last year, with a few engine evolutions, and the eight-time world champion managed to make the most of it. But he was suitably impressed with Latvala’s day one pace, and Ford’s new signing Solberg also believes that M-Sport can really take the fight to their French rivals this year, after scoring his best-ever result on the rally: traditionally a bête noire for the Norwegian.
“The car is so fast,” he pointed out, struggling as usual to contain his enthusiasm. “And it suits me so well. I tell you: I’m really, really looking forward to getting on snow and gravel now, because I know that I can be even quicker there. We can definitely challenge for the championships: manufacturers and drivers.”
Looking at the rally as a whole, Solberg’s optimism is well placed. Unlike many of Latvala’s previous accidents, what happened on stage four was just down to momentary distraction rather than any fundamental error in his approach to the event.
He started looking at the ice on the road rather than what he was doing, and the consequences were inevitable. Latvala, of course, would have won last year’s world title if the results had only been based on the second half of the season. Along with his experience of Ford and the Fiesta, that’s why he is nominally the ‘number one’ driver this year - although team principal Malcolm Wilson has promised to be very flexible in his approach.
So it’s an incredibly strong line-up, with Solberg seemingly adapting to the Ford a little quicker than Hirvonen has got to grips with the Citroen. It’s not just been a question of learning the car for him: the culture shock for Hirvonen as a Finn in a very French team is going to be far greater than it is for Solberg coming back to Ford, and Citroen have had to alter their working practices too. For example, the team debriefs - which used to be in French during the Loeb-Ogier era - are now all in English. But according to many people within the team, there is a healthier atmosphere since Loeb and Ogier’s differences were resolved by the younger Frenchman moving to Volkswagen, and new team principal Yves Matton has also brought a breath of fresh air into an outfit that was in danger of becoming swamped by in-fighting.
Even installed in a Super 2000 Skoda, Ogier was still making headlines. His pace at the start of the rally was nothing short of phenomenal, setting a third-fastest stage time and running in the top six.
That speed came at a price though: Ogier admitted that he cut a corner too deep and this was what launched him into the biggest accident of his career. It was probably a useful lesson not to attempt the impossible, and in any case, it’s going to be hard for him replicate such a strong run on the remaining events this year, which have slightly fewer random factors.
One of the most impressive drives of the rally though was far less conspicuous. Dani Sordo held second place right from day one, to claim the first podium for MINI in Monte Carlo since Rauno Aaltonen last won the event in 1967. Sordo was in a car that had nothing like the resources, testing and development that the other factory teams plough into their entries, yet once more he was only beaten by Sebastien Loeb, to claim MINI’s third podium in seven rallies.
Even so, none of the podium finishers was the biggest hero of the rally. That accolade goes to sixth-placed Francois Delecour, returning to the WRC after a 10-year absence. His touching gesture of allowing co-driver Dominique Savignoni to drive the last stage of his last rally goes to show what a tremendous sport this is.