Sebastien Ogier began his World Rally Championship title defense with a hard-fought victory in often atrocious conditions on the Monte Carlo Rally.
Despite being back in ninth, 1min20sec off the lead at the end of the opening loop on Thursday morning, Ogier was able to charge back to the front by the middle of the second day. He then pulled away, coping well with torrential rain and occasional heavy snow, to give Volkswagen its first Monte win, and to repeat his 2009 triumph on the event when it was part of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
Ogier’s early deficit occurred during the changeable conditions of the first morning, when a mixture of rain, ice and surprise snow made tire choices a nightmare.
Robert Kubica started his first top-level WRC season with M-Sport in incredible style by winning the first two stages, before falling back to fourth when he found himself on the wrong tires for heavy snow on SS3. The Pole remained in contention for a podium until crashing out on day two.
Bryan Bouffier, making what is expected to be a one-off outing in an M-Sport customer Ford, judged the weather and tire dilemma perfectly and burst into the lead. It looked like he would be able to put up a fight against Ogier until a spin on Friday let the world champion snatch first place. Bouffier drove sensibly to claim second thereafter.
Citroen’s 2014 signings Kris Meeke and Mads Ostberg were delighted to deliver third and fourth for their new employer.
Jari-Matti Latvala made a very poor start to the event and was only 19th after the first loop. He recovered strongly to take several stage wins and the power stage bonus on the way to fifth, despite a puncture on Friday.
Elfyn Evans completed his first Monte Carlo Rally, and only his second World Rally Car outing, in sixth place overall, having held his own in the top six for most of the rally.
His M-Sport team-mate Mikko Hirvonen was off the pace. He was poised to deny Evans sixth until a late alternator problem meant he ground to a halt on the final stage.
Andreas Mikkelsen also had a tough event and finished seventh. He struggled early on, then lost several minutes with a trip off the road on Friday after he had got up to sixth.
Hyundai’s new i20 made a brief but promising WRC debut. Although Thierry Neuville crashed out on the very first stage, his teammate Dani Sordo was running third before a battery problem ended his rally later on day one.
Slovakian newcomer Jaroslav Melicharek took eighth overall despite forcing the penultimate stage to be abandoned when he got stuck in deep snow, blocking the course until spectators got him moving.
Super 2000 Peugeot driver Matteo Gamba and WRC2 class winner Yuriy Protasov completed the scorers.
Leading finishers after SS15: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Sebastien Ogier VW 3h55m14.4s 2. Bryan Bouffier M-Sport Ford +1m18.9s 3. Kris Meeke Citroen +1m54.3s 4. Mads Ostberg Citroen +3m53.9s 5. Jari-Matti Latvala VW +6m08.3s 6. Elfyn Evans M-Sport Ford +8m37.4s 7. Andreas Mikkelsen VW +11m42.3s 8. Jaroslav Melicharek Slovakia Ford +21m56.2s 9. Matteo Gamba Balbosca Peugeot +23m50.7s* 10. Yuriy Protasov M-Sport Ford +25m43.1s** * S2000 car ** WRC2 WRC retirements: Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport Ford SS15 Robert Kubica M-Sport Ford SS9 Dani Sordo Hyundai SS5 Thierry Neuville Hyundai SS1 Francois Delecour M-Sport Ford SS1 Martin Prokop Czech Ford SS1 Leading power stage times: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Jari-Matti Latvala VW 10m41.5s 2. Sebastien Ogier VW +0.2s 3. Kris Meeke Citroen +4.9s 4. Bryan Bouffier M-Sport Ford +17.9s 5. Andreas Mikkelsen VW +19.7s