While at Rally Catalunya in October 2016 a discussion started in a bar about a possible trip to Monte Carlo to witness the new generation World Rally Cars hitting the stages for the first time.
At the time, nobody was taking the conversation too seriously. However, a few weeks later flights, accommodation, and car hire were booked for a group of six.
Roll on three months and the adventure began with a flight to Lyon followed by the three-hour drive to Gap.
Rally Monte Carlo was the opening round of the World Rally Championship. The championship was reborn with the introduction of more powerful machinery and big aero packages.
Could this replicate the Group B era?
Championship regulars M-Sport and Hyundai were joined by the returning Citroen and Toyota while Volkswagen had shelved its plans despite extensive development and testing.
Sebastien Ogier’s move to M-Sport was the main talking point. Andreas Mikkelsen was resigned to a seat in a Skoda Fabia R5 despite finishing runner-up in the previous year’s championship.
Of course, there was plenty of Irish interest as well.
Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle were in the Citroen C3 WRC while their team-mates Craig Breen and Scott Martin had to settle for the older Citroen DS3 WRC. Eamonn Boland and MJ Morrissey also made their traditional visit to Monte Carlo in a Fiesta R5.
Monte’s opening night is renowned for its unique atmosphere, we couldn’t wait.
First up was the famous Bayons-Breziers stage with its hairpins cutting into the mountainside.
For every passing car, fireworks were set off as the cars’ light-pods lit up the thousands of spectators on the roadside. It was an experience like no other.
Friday featured the southern Alps’ mix of snow covered, ice lined, and dry tarmac stages. A true Monte test.
Thierry Neuville opened up a commanding lead over Ogier by the end of the day with Ott Tanak battling his new team-mate for second.
The Belgian extended his lead on Saturday but his Hyundai ran wide on the exit of a corner on the day’s final stage. A damaged suspension ended his challenge for victory although he did rejuvenate himself to win Sunday’s power stage.
Ogier cruised to victory followed by Jari-Matti Latvala, proving that the Toyota Yaris was a force to be reckoned with. Little did we know how mighty it would prove to be in the coming years.
Tanak finished third giving M-Sport a solid platform in their quest for the Manufacturers’ Championship.
Craig Breen was best of the Irish bringing his outdated Citroen back to Casino Square in fifth.
For Malcolm Wilson, it was years of perseverance that brought him to this point. Works teams have come and gone but M-Sport has been the backbone of WRC.
It was over four years since his team last tasted success. All three drivers set fastest stage times throughout the weekend and he had the reigning champion at his disposal.
It was the start of two special years for M-Sport and a certain Frenchman by the name of Sebastien Ogier.
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Photos and words by Alan Noonan