The roulettes in the Monte Carlo Casino spun and spun but despite the uncertainties and random results it’s supposed to throw up in its red and black pockets, the familiar white car with the blue and grey streaks emerged triumphant.
After a chaotic opening day at the Monte Carlo rally, the croupier presented the world with a promising Pole, a struggling defending champion and wrecked Hyundai hopes. As the event progressed, the thrice-lucky Sebastien Ogier clawed back to show his hand to prove that gambling had its methods.
“We struggled with the meteo information and we went wrong, fortunately everybody behind us copied us. If somebody had been clever behind us and taken snow tyres, maybe they would have taken the lead by five minutes on day one,” confessed Ogier.
On the opening morning, in the Frenchman’s backyard in Gap, Ogier’s home advantage was blanketed in snow.
Citroen’s Kris Meeke interjected: “He never called me. I was running 20 minutes after!… If I’d had Seb’s dad’s phone number I could have won the rally!”
Not only was Ogier saved by his imitating rivals who started behind him, he also very nearly ended his rally after he came close to falling into a ditch twice in two days. But he had more than three chances; in fact, he probably had seven lives to spare in the Principality.
“Sometimes it has been quite close, even on some finish line we jumped into some field – I did some study in agriculture, which reminded me of some stuff with the tractor! It was fine… I’m never scared,” asserted his co-driver Julien Ingrassia.
Second-placed Bryan Bouffier was ballsy, so much so that M-Sport has been forced to rightly consider him for more events this season.
“I was realistic before the rally, knowing it was going to be so tough but we were really concentrated on our target to do the best tyre choice and that’s what happened,” he said. “Just before leaving the service I took two super soft and two snow tyres for the boot and Christian Loriaux from Ford said it was a ‘small dick’ choice. But I said: ‘Okay but it’s the only dick I have…'”
And how did he handle the pressure of keeping the defending world champion on his toes and keep the rest behind?
“I am getting quite old,” said the 35-year-old who will be in Latvia for the second round of the European Rally Championship in two weeks unsure about his future in the World Rally Championship.
“It was a big mistake from me during the recce, I missed the junction – I didn’t take the proper road. It was my mistake,” he admitted adding that he didn’t realise the gaffe until his crew pointed it out to him.
He then called Francois Delecour’s co-driver Dominique Savignoni for help.
“Dominique gave me his notes for the five kilometres I missed. I write down the first three, but then the phone is cutting out and it was not possible to take all five. So, for five kilometres we have our notes, then we do three with Francois Delecour’s notes, then two with Bryan’s eyes and then the final ten with our notes.”
With 20-20 vision, unlike his teammate Mikko Hirvonen’s misted windscreen on SS8, Bouffier eventually finished 79 seconds behind the victor. What could have been…
But Kris Meeke remembered to keep his car on the road and his career on track. But that’s just one of 13 scheduled events and another 3500 kilometres-odd more to go with the snowy Sweden next on the calendar, where the Briton will ski across in a WRC car for the first time.
“In fact I’ve never been to Mexico or Portugal either so I’ll be quiet on the next three rallies,” he pointed out much to the delight of Ingrassia during the post-event press conference.
But considering Bouffier’s spin and his apologetic, temporarily-amnesic co-driver, Meeke would have been thankful that Robert Kubica crashed out. The Pole, who prefers racing in Formula One, battled with the Citroen for a podium with the pair separated by under a second before the M-Sport driver’s tame spin and a near-fiery end in a ditch.
That was what the old Meeke would have done as well. Perhaps he has turned a new page, although it’s just too early to conclude that.
“If I can finish this rally with no mistakes, I can do it on any rally!” the crash-prone Meeke had said shortly after sealing the podium, proving that he is out to shed that tag this year.
Meanwhile, Hyundai claimed that it would learn from its disastrous outing in which both its cars retired on the opening day.
The learning will rest heavily on the eager and perhaps over-enthusiastic Thierry Neuville, who crashed into a telegraph pole after just six kilometres into SS1. The Belgian’s start was ominous though as he was nearly five seconds quicker than the field in the first split. But that’s what may have led to the crash in the first place. And Dani Sordo’s quick run, before his charge ended due to an electrical issue, speaks volumes about Hyundai’s potential.
Hirvonen would have probably preferred to have ended his rally early too. Back in M-Sport’s proverbial bosom, he appeared to be like a lost toddler trying to take his first steps into his mother’s accepting arms. The Finn was upstaged for most part of the running by another child, Elfyn Evans, who systematically followed the breadcrumbs home.
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” a mature Evans had proclaimed during the rally.
But it was just one event. Monte Carlo; covered with snow and standing water when it had melted off in nearly every stage. It may have all been a gamble, but Volkswagen had been counting the cards.
“Last year we were relaxed at the start and wanted to see where we were. Then we saw where we were and could develop from there and it went really well,” explained Volkswagen’s motorsport director Jost Capito. “We worked hard during the winter, it was a short break, but the work we did to change the car paid off this weekend. I am pretty sure if we had not done that Seb would not have won the rally.”