Bryan Bouffier clinched by far the biggest win of his career by cruising to victory in the Monte Carlo Rally
Prior to this year's Monte, Bouffier had never even scored an Intercontinental Rally Challenge point, having been quick but luckless on his previous appearances.
But the reigning French champion took control of the Monte with an inspired tyre choice and perfect drive on the rally's only two snow-hit stages - which turned the leaderboard inside out.
Prior to Thursday afternoon's weather drama, reigning IRC champion Juho Hanninen had been dominating on the dry asphalt, opening up a 50-second lead over Petter Solberg, Freddy Loix and Stephane Sarrazin's battle for second, while Bouffier was fighting Guy Wilks and Jan Kopecky for fifth.
But heavy snowfall on SS7 and SS8 caught many of the frontrunners unaware, with Hanninen and Solberg tumbling to sixth and seventh as they struggled haplessly on intermediate tyres.
Most skittered through on stud-less winter tyres, and Bouffier fared best of all on this rubber as he won SS7 and vaulted from seventh to the rally lead. He then fitted two studded tyres for SS8, which gave him a half-minute lead over impressive returnee Francois Delecour - who had used all-studded tyres and surged from eighth to second.
Delecour could not maintain that pace on the final day's fully dry stages, and suspected his Peugeot 207 was down on power as he fell back down the order.
That left Bouffier under no pressure at the front, and he drove carefully through the final stages to win by 32.5 seconds over Loix.
"It's fantastic, really fantastic, I'm so happy," said Bouffier. "I had big pressure, but I was thinking about the end of the stage. There was a lot of emotion, it's fantastic.
"Monte Carlo for a rally driver is really amazing, especially this year with lots of fantastic drivers and amazing weather conditions."
Loix fended off a late charge from Sarrazin - who won both the stages on tonight's final loop - to secure second. The Le Mans racer rued a gearbox problem earlier this evening that he was sure cost him the runner-up spot.
Wilks grabbed fourth from the fading Delecour on the last stage of the rally, despite feeling he had got his tyre choice tonight completely wrong. While fifth was an incredible result for Delecour on his return to top-level rallying after an eight-year absence, he had still hoped for more.
"It's difficult to have been second and finish fifth, but we knew it would be difficult today," said Delecour, who hinted at further outings later this season.
Hanninen kept charging after his snow delay and nearly caught Wilks and Delecour. But Solberg never got back in contention, and only just made it to seventh as his Peugeot's alternator began to fail on the last stage.
Many other potential frontrunners were ruled out early on, as heavy attrition hit the field on the first two stages on Wednesday morning.
Early punctures left Nicolas Vouilloz, Giandomenico Basso and Toni Gardemeister all playing catch-up. They finished eighth, 10th and 11th respectively, with Kopecky ninth after he lost a huge seven minutes on intermediates in the snow.
Several big names failed to even get beyond Wednesday morning. Andreas Mikkelsen's debut with Skoda UK was ruined within four corners of the start, when he hit a wall and sustained terminal suspension damage.
Both Protons were out by SS2 - Chris Atkinson with electrical problems and P-G Andersson with damaged suspension - while crashes sidelined Henning Solberg, Thierry Neuville and Bruno Magalhaes on leg one.
But ex-Formula 1 driver Alex Caffi survived all the event's challenges and came home an excellent 12th on his rallying debut. GP3's Adrien Tambay was an impressive 18th overall and fourth in the 2WD class, which saw Pierre Campana fight back from a puncture to deny Michael Burri.
The fifth Intercontinental Rally Challenge was the best yet, and it was Skoda UK driver Andreas Mikkelsen who emerged as champion from a tense five-way shootout at the season finale. Matt Beer reviews the season