Sebastien Ogier cemented his name in the annals of FIA World Rally Championship greatness by clinching a record-breaking ninth victory on home soil at Rallye Monte-Carlo on Sunday afternoon.
Co-driven by Vincent Landais on the season-opener, the eight-time World Champion did not put a wheel wrong all weekend to secure top spot ahead of his Toyota team-mate, Kalle Rovanpera.
Twelve months on from his penultimate stage puncture that snatched success from his grasp and gifted it to countryman Sebastien Loeb, tears of despair were swapped for those of joy this time.
The Frenchman balanced risk and reward in the mountains high above the rally's base in Monaco to near-perfection, setting fastest times on two of the four Sunday special stages to finish top of the leaderboard by a comfortable 18.8 seconds at the controls of his GR Yaris Rally1 supermini.
“It [ the win] is huge,” said Ogier, who made it career win number 56 and the first of Landais'. “It is the one that gave me the dream. It has been the perfect weekend. We still need to enjoy these moments, that is why we are here, to catch some wins like this, and some famous ones like the Monte as well. It has no price.”
Second position and five bonus points from the Power Stage will feel like a win for the defending champion Rovanpera as Ogier is tackling only a selected number of World Rally Championship rounds in 2023 as part of his car share programme with sixth-placed driver, Tamakoto Katsuta.
Tyre wear – and the need to keep the rubber on his car in as good a shape as possible for the end-of-rally Power Stage – was at the back of Rovanpera's mind, much like everyone else on Sunday.
However, one less worry was the hybrid energy recovery system in his Yaris; it was working as it should whereas third-placed Thierry Neuville – and Hyundai running mate Dani Sordo – was being hampered by problems with his. Despite this, and a spin at the first left-hand hairpin of the day that saw him squeeze through a gap in the Armco backwards, he rounded out the podium spots.
“I gave it everything but we had so much tyre wear compared to the other all weekend and we are missing speed,” admitted Neuville. “Even if we are taking risks at some points, we can't match the others.
“We had to be sensible this weekend – we kept the car on the road and brought it back. Now we are looking forward to Sweden,” he added.
27.8 seconds further down the road from the I20 N Rally1 car of Neuville was Britain's Elfyn Evans. Reeling in the Belgian was going to be a tall order but a half spin 3.3km into the antepenultimate speed test extinguished all hope and meant that he turned his attention to consolidating fourth.
Behind him, the battle for fifth between M-Sport's Ott Tanak and Toyota's Katsuta raged into the Power Stage. A snail's pace display by the Estonian through the second from last test allowed a half-minute buffer to be trimmed to a mere tenth of a second.
In the end, the experience of 2019 World Champion Tanak won out – coupled with suspension failure for Katsuta – meant that he succeeded in keeping the Japanese star at arm's length.
“I have no idea,” said a surprised Katsuta. “After a tight corner, something broke straight away, like the car was washing out into the mountain. We were very lucky it was not in a fast section. After that we hit the rear and we were able to continue but we couldn't open the throttle because there was something wrong with the car.”
An inter-team rivalry for seventh involving Hyundai Motorsport's Dani Sordo and Esapekka Lappi went in favour of the former despite incurring a 10 second penalty for a jump start on Sunday's opener.
Sordo sits out next month's Rally Sweden as Irishman Craig Breen takes over, while for Lappi, it will be a case of trying to find what few positives there were from a forgettable ‘Monte'. “At least we did all the mileage and we understood a lot about this car, which is very important for Croatia [the next Asphalt round in April],” said the Finn.
1. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris 3hr 12min 2.0sec
2. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +18.8sec
3. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +44.6sec
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +1min 12.4sec
5. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma +2min 34.9sec
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +3min 32.6sec
Drivers' championship points (after round 1 of 13):
1. S Ogier 26pts
2. K Rovanperä 23pts
3. T Neuville 17 pts