In recent past the Monte-Carlo rally has been a tarmac rally with patches of ice and slick spots. This year however it was completely different as massive snow storms came through and blanketed the stages. It looked more like Rally Sweden than the Monte-Carlo we have all been accustomed to.
At the end of the very first stage Sebastian Ogier gave Volkswagen their first stage win in the debut of the Polo R WRC. It wasn’t by much, but a significant achievement nonetheless. Loeb was just 3.7 seconds behind. Both were significantly faster than the rest of the pack who were 20 seconds and more behind. The following stages is where the drama really began, not so much with the drivers but with the new timing and scoring system. Splits were spotty to non-existent and even stage end times were difficult to confirm. Drivers and fans were frustrated with the system failures and team principals voiced concern as the tracking system is also used as a safety tool to know if a car has an emergency and needs assistance. Many including myself were crying afoul of the FIA’s decision to replace the tried and true Stage1 Technologies team who had run the timing and scoring systems for the previous decade. The new deal with the Spanish firm SIT seems to already have some huge issues, and the problems continued throughout the entire event. Maybe we are all being harsh as this was their first event, however I’m concerned that the FIA might be getting a painful lesson in cheaper not being better.
With the splits not available in the cars, nine times world champion Sebastian Loeb said he had no choice but to push hard. And harder he did by gaining 26 seconds on Ogier by the end of stage three. Ogier said his fight was not with Loeb as he was not in contention for the championship, so he backed off ever so slightly. At the end of Day 1, Loeb had gained 1:20 over Ogier who was still another 26 seconds ahead of Mikko Hirvonen. Although those results took a while to come out due to the timing issues. First out of the top drivers went to young Belgian driver Thierry Neuville who hit a small hole in a corner cut that broke his suspension. Unfortunately Monte-Carlo elected not to offer “super rally” rules, so Thierry’s event was done.
The next two days saw some speed and brilliance by the other young drivers on the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team. Juho Hanninen who I think is one of the most underrated drivers got his first WRC stage win of his career, and Qatar M-Sport driver Evgeny Novikov won two stages as he battled Dani Sordo for 3rd place after Mikko Hirvonen slipped back as he lost confidence. And on the last stage of Day 3 Mads Ostberg, of which it was his first time competing the Rally Monte-Carlo, achieved his first stage win of the 2013 season.
The fourth and final day featured 4 stages including 3 runs through the infamous Col de Turini pass, the highest elevation in the event. As drivers prepped for the days classic stages clouds rolled in and brought a rain that turned the snow covered streets into a super slick surface that even studs had a tough time gripping onto. Regardless, these longer stages were the last chance for drivers to make up ground on their opponents. It ended up being pure survival on the the Turini pass. Even Sebastian Loeb said he crawled along at such a slow pace that he was checking his mirrors worried he would be overtaken on the stage by Sebastian Ogier. My favorite quote was from Mads Ostberg where at the end of the stage he said he couldn’t hardly walk on the road it was so slick, yet they were driving on it.
At the end of the infamous stage, Col de Turini had taken out three of the top drivers. Juho Hanninen lost a wheel, Novikov broke a suspension arm, and word came of a hard crash by Jari-Matti Latvala where his back end stepped out and hit a stone wall causing the car to spin and impact stone walls on both sides of the narrow pass. In all incidents, the drivers and co-drivers were okay. The stage win went to Bryan Buffier who was privately entered in the event with a Citroen DS3 WRC. Mads Ostberg survived the first run up the Col only to suffer a puncture on his right rear wheel that he had to change on stage dropping a position.
As the cars regrouped in the service park and daylight began to fade, the rain kept coming down. Safety crews attempted to drive the final stages in advance of the racers but the masses of fans had the road blocked in one area, and with the super slick conditions became even more treacherous. Therefore the last two stages 17 and 18 were cancelled and the cars turned back to the Monaco harbor service park.
So nine times World Champion Sebastian Loeb gets his 7th Rally Monte-Carlo victory. Sebastian Ogier took the second spot with the new VW team, and rounding out the podium was Dani Sordo also with Citroen. The rest of the survivors included Mikko Hirvonen in 4th position, a great finish for ERC driver Bryan Bouffier in 5th, and Mads Ostberg finished 6th even after his puncture. Martin Prokop took 7th, and a huge congratulations to Michael Kosciuszko for finishing his first event in a WRC car in 8th.
This year’s Monte-Carlo will go into the record books as one of the most difficult in history. Nobody could remember conditions like this in the last 30 years. What amazes me the most is that even in the miserably cold conditions and dumping rain on the last day, huge crowds lined the stages to catch a glimpse of their favorite drivers go by.
If nothing else, the snow and ice did get the drivers prepared for round 2 Rally Sweden in just a few weeks time. Even though Sweden is a winter event, it is also has some of the highest speeds. So get ready for more action when the teams head north.