Sebastien Ogier stood atop the Rally Monte-Carlo podium for a record-breaking eighth time on Sunday. The Toyota driver made the perfect start to his WRC title defence, and the ease of Ogier’s 50th World Rally win is an ominous sign for his rivals.
Ogier and Julien Ingrassia are the undisputed masters of Rally Monte-Carlo. They have won their home rally for five different manufacturers and last year’s victory for Thierry Neuville remains the only non-Ogier/Ingrassia success since 2013.
Whether it’s local knowledge, intelligent pacenotes, night-time commitment, or all-round wisdom, the French pairing know exactly how to start a world championship.
Neuville looked to have bridged Ogier’s Monte-Carlo superiority, the Belgian falling two seconds short in 2019 before charging to his first win in 2020.
This year’s half-minute winning margin can deceive one into believing it was a return to another straight-forward success for Ogier. However, Monte threw its fair share of curveballs over the four days of action.
An unstoppable force
Rally Monte-Carlo started a little differently in 2021. There was no iconic Casino Square start, no shakedown stage, and Thursday’s duo of stages were run in daylight.
Thursday ended a little differently too with Ogier and Ingrassia trailing their WRC rivals down in fifth position. A soft brake pedal made it an inconvenient start to their season.
In contrast, Ott Tanak was back to his imperious best as he overcame two technical issues to win the first two stages.
Ogier had dropped the guts of 17 seconds to the Estonian on 2021’s opening day of WRC action. Surely that pre-event accident hadn’t got the better of him?
Well, it hadn’t.
The Frenchman’s fightback started from the get-go on Friday morning. By the end of the two slippery predawn stages Ogier was the man out front. And just like that, he held an 11-second advantage after Stage 5, Montauban-sur-l’Ouvèze – Villebois-les-Pins.
A nice lead to manage. But it was a lead that disappeared on the very next stage.
A front-left puncture on his Toyota dropped Ogier right back to third, 20 seconds behind the ever-steady Elfyn Evans.
Now it really was time for a fightback worthy of a seven-time world champion.
He wasted no time, going fastest on Friday’s remaining stage. But it was the following morning when he really set the timing screens alight.
Ogier obliterated his competition in the darkness between La Breole and Selonnet. His confidence in challenging conditions was rewarded with a 17.8-second stage-win over the 18.3-kilometre test.
This time he held a lead that he wasn’t going to give up.
As Ogier took control on Saturday morning, Tanak’s rally started to unravel. The early rally leader held the final podium position the night before but a recce mistake was to cost him dearly on Saturday’s opener.
The 2019 champion hit a rock puncturing one of his Hyundai’s tyres. He dropped two positions before a slow puncture on the following stage put him out of the rally altogether.
Carrying only one spare wheel Tanak was forced to retire the car knowing that he couldn’t return on Sunday.
Two Monte-Carlo DNFs from two isn’t a pleasant thought for a man with much higher expectations.
It was a subdued performance in general for Hyundai. Neuville and Dani Sordo’s choice of an additional studded tyre on Friday put them out of contention almost straight away.
After five stages both were over a minute off the rally-leading pace. Neuville did recover to third, showing glimpses of the driver that took the rally by the horns 12 months ago.
Ogier at his best
Ogier’s failure to win his seventh Rally Monte-Carlo in a row last year was put down to his then-recent switch to Toyota.
Sure enough, it took him a couple of rounds to find his feet before claiming his maiden Toyota win on Rally Mexico.
He had to wait until the final round of 2020 for his second win with the Japanese brand. With his third now under his belt Ogier looks assured of the car underneath him.
Next on the calendar, Arctic Rally Finland will be an altogether different challenge. Ogier’s performance on the high-speed snow stages could hint at just how settled he now is behind the wheel of a Toyota Yaris WRC.
But the big hint from Monte-Carlo is that those hoping for WRC success this year will have to beat a certain Sebastien Ogier who is back at his very best.
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Photos courtesy of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT