Monte hat-trick for Loeb

Sebastien Loeb has taken a commanding victory in the Monte Carlo Rally - his third consecutive victory in the traditional opener and the perfect start to his world championship defence. The Citroen driver looked unstoppable from the start of the first leg and duly cruised through the final morning to win by nearly three minutes

Monte hat-trick for Loeb

The battle for the remaining podium spots was hard-fought right up to the last stages, with second and third eventually falling to Ford newcomer Toni Gardemeister and Mitsubishi's Gilles Panizzi. Both were delighted - Gardemeister having secured his best ever WRC result (and only his second podium) and Panizzi getting a Mitsubishi into the overall top three for the first time since Tommi Makinen won the Safari Rally in the old-style Lancer in 2001.

Gardemeister and Panizzi were assisted by the misfortune that befell Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg as the two ex-champions battled for second on the first pass through the famous Col du Turini. Both crashed on snow deliberately deposited in the road by spectators, with Solberg losing a wheel and retiring soon afterwards and Gronholm suffering a five minute delay as he dragged his hobbled Peugeot 307 back to the service area.

Gronholm was at least able to rejoin after repairs, and he proved his pace by setting the fastest time on SS13. He ultimately finished fifth, some distance behind his team-mate Markko Martin, who at least took points for fourth after a steady run in the still unfamiliar Peugeot 307.

Star of the final morning was sixth-placed Manfred Stohl, the top privateer setting some blistering times as he felt increasingly at home in his new Kronos Citroen Xsara. Stohl pushed Mitsubishi's Harri Rovanpera out of the top six on the day's opening stage and then set the third fastest time on SS15.

The final point went to Ford driver Roman Kresta, who set a fastest time of his own on leg three as he fought back after damaging his suspension on the final stage of leg two. This error cost Kresta a potential top four finish on his Ford debut, but he at least managed to secure a point by easing away from the chasing Alex Bengue - who was making a similar comeback charge after his own suspension-mangling moment on Saturday's SS9.

Of the leg two retirees, only Stephane Sarrazin rejoined under SupeRally regulations for today's action. The Subaru driver was second quickest on SS15 as he battled through the lower top 20. Francois Duval and Armin Schwarz sat out the final leg after their heavy accidents on Saturday morning.

Colin McRae's protégé Kris Meeke took his first JWRC victory - charging back brilliantly after a spin on leg two. He passed overnight class leader Kosti Katajamaki on today's opening stage and then eased away to win by 14s.

All this was taking place far behind the victorious Loeb however. Despite enjoying a lead margin of 2m30s going into the final loop and therefore hardly needing to push, he was comfortably quickest over SS14 and 15. Loeb eventually won his third Monte Carlo Rally by 2m58.3s, getting Citroen's last season in the WRC off to a flying start in the process.



Sebastien Loeb (Citroen Xsara) 4h13m05.6s
Toni Gardemeister (Ford Focus) 4h16m03.9s
Gilles Panizzi (Mitsubishi Lancer) 4h16m45.7s
Markko Martin (Peugeot 307) 4h18m33.3s
Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot 307) 4h20m39.4s
Manfred Stohl (Citroen Xsara) 4h21m14.5s
Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi Lancer) 4h21m34.9s
Roman Kresta (Ford Focus) 4h22m23.7s
Alexandre Bengue (Skoda Fabia) 4h23m37.6s
Antony Warmbold (Ford Focus) 4h28m14.7s

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