It had been billed as a battle of the titans, but in the end it was over in less than two days. Nine-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb returned to take on Sébastien Ogier, for what he insisted was a strictly one-off outing, although many people think otherwise.
Loeb has won the Monte Carlo Rally seven times, but claimed on this occasion that his outing was just “for fun”, while Citroën boss Yves Matton said that taking Loeb to Monte Carlo, after two years away from a full-time role in the sport, was “a gamble”.
In many ways it was, but that had nothing to do with Loeb’s prodigious talents. Instead, as somebody who didn’t take part in the championship last year, he would be starting the rally way down the order. Potentially, Loeb could benefit from very different road conditions to Ogier, who would start first.
In some cases this would benefit Loeb dramatically (if road conditions improved, with the front-runners sweeping snow or gravel off the road) and in other cases it would give him a big disadvantage, if conditions got worse.
Which would be the case in Monte? Ogier was hoping for the latter, deliberately taking the occasional odd line to knock more snow onto the road. In truth, it was Loeb’s sheer brilliance (as well as a quiet determination to show the world who was still boss) that made the biggest difference: he stopped the clocks precisely 30.9 seconds faster than Ogier through the opening 13-mile stage.
“He was simply astonishing,” said Citroën’s technical director Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”
There was a flaw, though. Loeb admitted he was taking risks: going for the extreme tyre choices, pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. And the thing about Loeb is that he got where he is precisely by not taking risks.
Still, it worked. For six stages he held the lead, with Ogier getting ominously closer by banging in increasingly rapid times. On stage seven Ogier took the lead, by the scant margin of eight seconds. And maybe that had something to do with what happened next.
To be fair, Loeb was desperately unlucky. He slid wide at slow speed on an icy patch of road – while on yet another pretty brave tyre choice – and hit the left-rear wheel in exactly the wrong place. That was enough to knock it half off, realistically ending his chances of making it all the way back to service.
The dream was over. Loeb was forced out of the top 10 and Ogier suddenly had a lead of almost two minutes over the other two Volkswagens, laying the foundations of a Wolfsburg one-two-three: a perfect start to the year for the reigning champion.
The same stage that accounted for Loeb also claimed his team-mate Kris Meeke, in a remarkably similar accident. Looking at the times that both Citroëns set subsequently, it could just as easily have been a Citroën one-two by the end of the event: a frustrating opportunity missed.
However, the star of Monte Carlo was neither a Volkswagen nor a Citroën driver. Instead, it was Robert Kubica’s pace that really made the headlines. In a privateer Ford Fiesta, on new Pirelli tyres he had tested only one week previously, the former Grand Prix driver set four fastest stage times – and by the incredible margin of 33 seconds on SS10, the longest of the rally at 51 kilometres. Yes, he crashed three times afterwards, but that was almost irrelevant. This was a demonstration of raw pace that put even Loeb in awe. From a man, don’t forget, who has only one fully functioning arm. Anthony Peacock