Sebastien Loeb has opened the defence of his eighth world title in grand style with a comfortable win in the Rallye Monte Carlo. The French maestro, who turns 38 next month, and his co-driver Daniel Elena showed no signs of slowing down winning the rally by almost three minutes from Dani Sordo (MINI).
The tricky conditions, with a mixture of dry and icy roads, as well as regular snow, made tyre selection difficult. It took Loeb until SS4 to claim the lead, which he did not surrender for the remainder of the event.
Loeb explains it was tyre strategy that gave him such a comfortable winning margin, “It’s a big gap to second, but I wouldn’t say that this was an easy win. We had to deal with all sorts of conditions and my lead was largely built on better tyre choices, which were mainly down to the work of Citroën Racing’s technical team and our tyre partner Michelin.
“For the first time in a long time in WRC, we were able to choose between five types of tyres and we always managed to pick the right tyres for the circumstances.”
The 2003 world champion Petter Solberg (Ford) claimed the final podium step behind Loeb and Sordo. While Loeb’s new teammate Mikko Hirvonen finished his first rally for Citroën in fourth place.
More snow and ice will face the teams at Rally Sweden, which is the next event on the WRC calendar and starts in just under three weeks.
Citroën dominates the 2012 Monte Carlo Rally
Citroen has opened the 2012 World Rally Championship with a dominant performance by Sébastien Loeb winning the season-opener, the Monte Carlo Rally, at the weekend (17-22 January 2012) by taking the lead on stage four in his Citroen DS3 WRC, holding it to the finish and beating his nearest rival by nearly three minutes.
The win for Loeb, his sixth in the Monte Carlo, plus the bonus points for a clean sweep of the final ‘power stage’, puts the eight time World Champion in the lead in the 2012 World Championship title race and with his new team mate, Mikko Hirvonen in four place, Citroen also leads the manufacturers’ Championship.
The apparent ease of Loeb’s win underplays the tension at the start of the event and its critical demands on tyre choice, made all the harder this year by unseasonably warm weather. On the opening day of the event Citroën decided to fit its DS3 WRCs with four soft slick tyres and put studded tyres on the two spare wheels. Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena kicked off the season with the fastest time on the Le Moulinon – Entraigues stage. However, as expected, the morning’s decisive times were set on the Burzet – St Martial stage, with around ten kilometres of snow-covered roads.
As the cars stopped at the end of SS2, Loeb had lost over 50 seconds to Jari-Matti Latvala, who had used extra-soft tyres. At that point, the Citroën driver trailed the leader by 30 seconds in the overall standings.
“I didn’t think the time differences would be so big. We took a bit of gamble in putting on a mix of slicks and studded tyres,” commented Seb when he got back to the Valence service park. “It wasn’t much fun driving in these conditions, but we didn’t come out of it too badly. At a Rallye Monte-Carlo, this kind of gap is never insurmountable.”
The first day continued with a second run over the stages in the Ardèche. This time with extra-soft tyres fitted, Sébastien Loeb was able to hit back at his rivals. After setting the fastest time on SS3 by four tenths of a second, he then moved into the overall lead in the rally after SS4, in which Latvala went off.
“We didn’t have the best tyres this morning, but I knew that I could put in a big performance this afternoon because had the right tyres. As soon as we hit the tarmac between two snow-covered sections, the extra-soft tyres provided me with exceptional grip,” analysed the eight-time World Champion at the end of day one. “It’s a shame that Jari-Matti is out of the race because it would have been very close this evening and we could have looked forward to a good scrap tomorrow. In any case, holding a one-minute lead over Sordo and Solberg means I can’t afford to relax at all!”
Mikko Hirvonen had a more taxing day. After making a good start on SS1, the Finn acknowledged that he had been too cautious on SS2. At the start of the afternoon, he broke a rear brake disc following a minor impact on SS3. He was forced to remove the brake disc, and had to complete the day’s final stage with no brakes on one wheel. “It was a difficult day but I am pleased to be here,” confirmed the 2011 WRC runner-up. “There are nevertheless some positives I can take away. This morning, I was a little nervous. But this afternoon, I had good pace on the sections where the grip was consistent. It could have been worse and I think I still have a chance of a podium finish.”
Day two of Rally Monte-Carlo continued the tour of the event’s legendary special stages. Winding through some of the most beautiful roads in the Ardèche and Haute-Loire departments, the Labatie d’Andaure – Lalouvesc, St-Bonnetle-Froid and Lamastre – Alboussière sectors form a loop that the competitors completed twice in the course of the day.
Tyre choice proved to be a little bit less tricky than on day one, as there were only a few patches of ice on the roads. The DS3 WRCs both put on Michelin supersoft tyres and took two soft tyres as spares.
Right from the word go, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena were on the pace, setting the fastest time on the day’s first stage. In the next sector, the DS3 WRCs secured their first stage one-two of the season, Loeb finishing just ahead of Mikko Hirvonen. Once again the quickest on SS7, Sébastien Loeb rounded off his morning with a clean sweep.
“Today was a lot easier than yesterday, particularly as the ice had more or less melted by the time we went through. I pushed because I like these conditions and I reckon that you have to pick up time when you can. Having said that, I think I didn’t make the best decision tyre-wise by keeping all four supersoft tyres for the Lamastre – Alboussière stage.”
Unlike Seb, Mikko Hirvonen had chosen to combine soft and supersoft tyres for the sixth stage, but he wasn’t any happier.
“The road was wetter than I thought and so it wasn’t the best option. Otherwise, the morning went very well since I took 4th place, moving ahead of Novikov and Ogier. I am therefore in a good position to score some important points for Citroën and I am ready to grab a place on the podium if I get a chance. I am not totally satisfied, however, because I think I’m still lacking pace when the road surface is changeable. I also have to adapt my driving style. The DS3 WRC requires a very gentle driving style and I am still too aggressive.”
Apart from SS8, where he was a mere two tenths of a second off the pace, Sébastien Loeb continued his superb solo effort in the afternoon. He ended the day with a lead of 1m37.2s over Dani Sordo, who was still fighting it out with Petter Solberg for second. “The day was fairly easy to manage, but I still had to keep the car on the road,” commented Sébastien Loeb after arriving back in Valence. “We managed to increase our lead considerably and that means we’ll be a bit more relaxed when we start tomorrow’s stages. It seems there’s a chance of snow!”
The third day of racing featured three long stages, each run only once. The morning’s loop, made up of the St-Jean-en-Royans – Font d’Urle (SS11) and Cimetière de Vassieux – Col de Gaudissart (SS12) stages, looked like it would be one of the rally’s decisive sections. After crossing the Vercors and stopping one final time at the Valence service park, only the Montauban s/Ouvèze – Eygalayes (SS13) stage remained before reaching Monaco.
Combining its experience with information from the early starters and the weather forecast from Météo France, the Citroën Total World Rally Team analysed the various options before choosing the tyres for the Vercors loop. The DS3 WRCs left the service park with four Michelin Pilot Alpin studded tyres and two Pilot Sport SS1 supersoft tyres as spares. Their rivals having adopted a different strategy, the DS3 WRCs had a tough time of it on SS11. However, at Monte-Carlo more than elsewhere, performances must be judged over an entire loop.
On the Col du Gaudissart, the four studded tyres on the Citroëns worked like a dream. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen took full advantage of them to set their first fastest stage time in a DS3 WRC. Their made up 39s on Dani Sordo, and a massive 1m46s on Petter Solberg.
“It’s good to confirm my progress with a fastest time,” acknowledged Mikko. “I felt good in the car with the four studded tyres fitted. The handling was consistent and I was able to push the way I wanted. We have closed the gap to Petter, but I’m not going to take too many risks to catch him.”
Meanwhile, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena had stretched their lead to beyond the two-minute mark:
“We knew that the weather might be difficult today. That’s why I kept pushing yesterday to try and open a bit of a gap at the front. If we had chosen the wrong tyres this morning, then I would almost certainly have lost the lead in the rally! Far from doing that, we’re now in a strong position… if the rest of the rally is run in dry conditions.”
This time running on slick tyres, Mikko Hirvonen set another fastest stage time between Montauban s/Ouvèze and Eygalayes. The gap to Petter Solberg was cut to just 23.8s by the end of the third day. “When the grip is consistent, I feel very good in the car,” confirmed Mikko.
After four long days’ racing, the final day of the Rallye Monte-Carlo was without doubt the shortest ever seen in the history of the World Championship: the 5.16km of the eighteenth stage, on a route between Ste Agnès and the Col de la Madone, were covered in under 3m30s by the leading WRC cars!
At the stop control, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena were pleased to see that they had recorded the fastest time, earning them three additional points in the Drivers’ World Championship.
“I had decided to push because these points could make all the difference in deciding who wins the title,” explained Sébastien Loeb. “Apart from the points scored, I am happy to win a rally that means a lot to me. There were a lot of supporters alongside the roads and I also wanted to win for them. It’s a big gap to second, but I wouldn’t say that this was an easy win. We had to deal with all sorts of conditions and my lead was largely built on better tyre choices, which were mainly down to the work of Citroën Racing’s technical team and our tyre partner Michelin. For the first time in a long time in WRC, we were able to choose between five types of tyres and we always managed to pick the right tyres for the circumstances. The Citroën DS3 WRC worked like a dream. I felt comfortable from the start of the rally and I managed to get into a good rhythm. It’s certainly a nice way to start the season!”
Second in the Power Stage, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended their first rally with Citroën Total World Rally Team in fourth place overall.
“It wasn’t the easiest rally for a first race in a new car, but I am pleased with the result,” confirmed the Finn. “The two days we had snow were particularly difficult. On tarmac, I was more comfortable and I was able to set some good times. I had to take it easy, avoid making mistakes and focus on getting to the finish to score some points. That’s exactly what we did. I can’t wait now to be in Sweden, I am really looking forward to racing there.”
For his first rally in charge of Citroën Racing, Yves Matton praised the performance of the entire team: “It’s important to start the season on a positive note and great to win a rally as legendary as Monte-Carlo. One of the key factors was tyre choice. The analysis work performed prior to the rally by our engineers, who had imagined almost every possible eventuality, helped us to make the right choices. Sébastien was impressive in terms of his race management. He was patient and took it a little easier when necessary and then pushed when the conditions enabled him to do so. Mikko did what we asked of him: make it to the finish in a good position. He took it step by step, but his three fastest stage times showed that he was getting to grips with the car. He gave himself the time he needed and that demonstrates his professionalism.”
“This is an exciting result. Once again, I was impressed by the entire team. It is very satisfying to see everyone working in relaxed fashion. I’m also pleased to see that Mikko and Jarmo are integrating well at Citroën Racing. The red army is on its way again!” praised Frédéric Banzet, CEO of the Citroën Brand.
The next event in the World Rally Championship will be held in Sweden between 9th and 12th February.
The 2012 Rally of Monte Carlo – Final Results
- Loeb / Elena Citroën DS3 WRC 4:32:39.9
- Sordo / del Barrio Mini Cooper JCW WRC +2:45.5
- Solberg / Patterson Ford Fiesta RS WRC +3:14.2
- Hirvonen / Lehtinen Citroën DS3 WRC +4:06.8
- Novikov / Giraudaet Ford Fiesta RS WRC +6:03.4
- Delecour / Savignoni Ford Fiesta RS WRC +7:47.9
- Campana / de Castelli Mini Cooper JCW WRC +8:31.4
- Tanak / Sikk Ford Fiesta RS WRC +10:34.6
- Prokop / Hruza Ford Fiesta RS WRC +16:10.7
- Araujo / Ramalho Mini Cooper JCW WRC +16:16.6