Sebastien Loeb led a jubilant Citroen team to a dream result on the Monte Carlo Rally. The Frenchman won the opening round of the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship by 38.1 seconds from team-mate Colin McRae.

Carlos Sainz brought his Xsara WRC home in third place to ensure a clean sweep of the podium positions for the Versailles-based team.

Loeb and McRae were untroubled throughout the final loop of four stages to the north of the rally's Monaco base. Sainz, however, was made to fight for third after his car hit brake trouble on the opening stage.

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Ford's Markko Martin moved ahead of Sainz after SS12 ensuring a nail-biting finish to this classic event. Martin spun his Focus RS WRC02 on the penultimate stage dropping ten seconds. Fastest time for Sainz through the final stage of the rally was enough for the Spaniard to get third place back.

Peugeot 206 WRC driver Richard Burns finished fifth behind Martin with leading privateer Cedric Robert sixth in his Peugeot.

At Citroen Carlos Sainz's Xsara WRC suffered a broken wheel bearing on the first stage this morning. This knocked off a rear brake pad in the following stage. The other two Xsaras ran well through the day.

Loeb scored his second win on a round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Monte Carlo. Loeb drove steadily through the day, taking no risks. He and McRae started the day on a stud-less snow tyre, which was felt to be the safest choice for the conditions. In the afternoon both drivers switched to a slick racing tyre and made it to the finish without any problems.

Sainz's brake problem cost him time in SS12 and he slipped back to fourth. The Spaniard set fastest times on the final two stages to pull that time back and deliver the perfect result for Citroen.

''To win an event which is so specialised as Monte Carlo is fantastic,'' said Loeb. ''After last year, I think this proves to people that I have the pace to win. It's perfect for the team.''

Colin McRae added: ''We had a good clean run through the event, the only problem in all three days was when we couldn't get reverse gear after we spun on the first day. I'll take second place, I'm happy with that.''

Carlos Sainz continued: ''I am certainly in the right team for Monte Carlo, this is a great start for everybody at Citroen. We had to work hard this afternoon after our trouble this morning. The problem was that when the pad was knocked off by the wheel bearing, it made my brake pedal go long and made it hard to slow the car down.''

Ford's Markko Martin and Francois Duval ran without trouble through the final leg. Mikko Hirvonen crashed out yesterday.

Estonian driver Martin came within an ace of spoiling Citroen's one-two-three, finishing just 3.3 seconds behind Sainz. Martin held third going into the final stage, despite a spin on the way up to the Col de Turini.

Once over the top of the Col, Martin pushed as hard as possible to try to make up some of the time he'd lost. His efforts meant he'd overheated his tyres, making it difficult to try and match Sainz's time through the final stage.

Duval was trying equally hard through that final stage in an effort to get ahead of sixth-placed Cedric Robert. Duval was third fastest on the second run over the Col de Turini, narrowing the gap to the French privateer to just 7.7s. Despite his best efforts through SS14, he ended the rally 0.4s behind Robert.

''Obviously it's a little disappointing to miss third, but I am happy with the way things have gone here for us and for the team,'' said Martin, ''This was only my second run at the stages on this event, so this has given me confidence for the future. The spin on SS13 cost me a good ten seconds. I spun, hit the wall and then had to drive back down the stage to handbrake the car back around before I could carry on. We hit the wall hard and knocked the front bumper off, we were pretty lucky that we didn't damage the intercooler or radiator.''

Duval added: ''It was a shame we didn't catch Robert, but it would have been silly to have made any mistakes. This is the first time I've scored world championship points - I feel like a proper team driver now.''

The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm ran without fault today.

Burns admitted there was little for him to fight for in the final leg of the rally. The Briton would be unable to make up the time he'd lost with a poor tyre choice on leg two. He ended the event fifth, two minutes behind Martin and two minutes ahead of Robert.

Gronholm made up some of the time he'd lost when he stopped to change a broken steering link on SS9 yesterday. Gronholm, who led this rally until his accident, finished 13th but scored one point for the Peugeot team.

''This is not my favourite event, but it was better than last year when I was driving the car for the first time,'' commented Burns. ''The car ran well throughout the event, but it was the mistake with tyres and suspension that cost us. This equals my best result on the Monte Carlo.''

Gronholm added: ''Today was a difficult day for me, but I am happy to have got a point for Peugeot. The tyre choice has been quite difficult today with the conditions quite varied on the stages.''

The third works Peugeot driven by Gilles Panizzi was retired on Saturday, as the asphalt ace was feeling unwell.

Armin Schwarz's Hyundai Accent ran without any mechanical problems today. Freddy Loix retired yesterday after going off the road in SS9.

Schwarz felt today's stages suited the car better. The team continued to make changes to the set-up and the German admitted this was the best day of the rally for him and Hyundai. Schwarz made up one place to move past Peugeot privateer Roman Kresta and end the rally in eighth place.

Schwarz said: ''Things have been better today. What is nice for me is that I've finished this event without making any mistakes. I've also scored a point for myself and some points for the team, but it's a shame because with some pre-event testing we could have done more. The car has plenty of potential.''

At Skoda Didier Auriol's Ocatvia WRC suffered a repeat of the clutch problem, which slowed him on the second leg. Toni Gardemeister retired on the second stage of the event on Friday, engine gremlins accounting for his demise.

Auriol made up one place to end his first rally in the FIA World Rally Championship with the Skoda team in ninth position. Auriol was delighted with the reception he received from the French rally fans out on the stages and admitted it was nice to be back rallying again after his year away from the sport.

Auriol said: ''I have driven the car at its maximum today, but I think we can get some more performance out of it on the asphalt. The clutch problem was the same as yesterday. I had to drive around every one of the tight hairpins, unable to use the handbrake. This cost me one second each time I wanted to use the handbrake.''

At Subaru neither car made it to the finish, both Tommi Makinen and Petter Solberg crashing out yesterday in SS9.

David Lapworth, Subaru's team principal, commented: ''We came here with a good deal of confidence and a new car, which has proved to be a significant step forward. Unfortunately, the end result has been disappointing, but sometimes that's just how it is in Monte Carlo. It's especially a shame as both drivers were going steady and were pacing themselves and not pushing too hard. I've said before that it's not unusual to make mistakes on the Monte Carlo Rally, but the driver that wins is the one that's lucky enough to get away with them.''

Of the other entries reigning French 1600cc champion Bruce Tirabassi, 25, made the perfect start to his FIA Junior World Rally Championship campaign when he won the opening round of the series in Monte Carlo.

Tirabassi moved his Renault Clio into the lead after Suzuki driver Daniel Carlsson was excluded yesterday by rally officials. Tirabassi's closest rival was Finland's Kosti Katajamaki, who ended the event in his Volkswagen Polo over three minutes behind the winner. Marcos Ligato took third place in his Fiat Punto.

Given the extent of his lead, Tirabassi elected to take a safe option and fitted studded tyres to his Clio for all four of the final leg's four stages. ''When you are doing a rally like this, you have to do what you can to protect your lead,'' he said. ''This is a fantastic start for me.''

Katajamaki's efforts to win the category were hit by gearbox troubles which struck his Polo yesterday. ''We were stuck in fifth gear,'' he said. ''After losing that time, and on an event like Monte Carlo, it would have been too risky to have pushed too hard today.''

Cedric Robert finished top privateer in his Peugeot 206 WRC, just edging out Ford's official driver Francois Duval to claim sixth place. There was a double celebration for the Bozian team as Robert's team-mate Roman Kresta took tenth overall.

Rally statistics - Leg 3:

Starters: 36 crews (all Group A) started this morning.

Retirements: Six other drivers.

Today - Sunday 26 January: Leg 3 started from Monaco at 08h00 and covered 269.16km, including 104.20km on four stages.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 3:

SS11 Sospel-turini-la bollene (32.11km):
1. McRae (GB) Citroen 25m 30.6
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 25m 33.6
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 25m 44.6

Leaders after SS11:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 3h 34m 27.6
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 3h 35m 32.5
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 3h 36m 39.1

SS12 Lantosque-luceram (19.52km):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 14m 09.4
2. Duval (B) Ford 14m 11.4
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 14m 15.9

Leaders after SS12:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 3h 49m 26.8
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 3h 50m 32.0
3. Martin (EE) Ford 3h 51m 17.2

SS13 Sospel-turini-la bollene (32.11km):
1. Sainz (E) Citroen 24m 52.0
2. Martin (EE) Ford 24m 56.9
3. Duval (B) Ford 25m 02.1

Leaders after SS13:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 4h 15m 00.0
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 4h 15m 46.8
3. Martin (EE) Ford 4h 16m 14.1

SS14 Lantosque-luceram (19.52km):
1 Sainz (E) Citroen 13m 46.1
2 Martin (EE) Ford 13m 52.8
3 Duval (B) Ford 13m 58.5

Leaders in Monaco after SS14:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 4h 29m 11.4
2. McRae (GB) Citroen +38.1
3. Sainz (E) Citroen +52.2
4. Martin (EE) Ford +55.5
5. Burns (GB) Peugeot +3m 16.5
6. Robert (F) Peugeot +5m 16.7
7. Duval (B) Ford +5m 17.1
8. Schwarz (D) Hyundai +6m 42.3
9. Auriol (F) Skoda +7m 13.8
10. Kresta (CZ) Peugeot +7m 50.9

JWRC leaders in Monaco after SS14:
1. Tirabassi (F) Renault 5h 12m 36.1
2. Katajamaki (FIN) Volkswagen +3m 21.7
3. Ligato (I) Fiat +5m 16.7
4. Broccoli (RSM) Opel +7m 26.8
5. Aava (EE) Suzuki +8m 48.6
6. Ceccato (I) Fiat +9m 20.2
7. Sebalj (HR) Renault +12m 23.9
8. Baldacci (RSM) Fiat +15m 13.8

Final statistics:

Event: The rally covered 1392.03km, including 415.02km on 14 special stages (including seven run twice ). All stages were on asphalt roads closed to other traffic.

Starters: 51 crews (all Group A) started the rally.

Finishers: 30 crews (all Group A) finished the rally.

Stage winners:
Loeb (SS3-5-6-8-9),
Gronholm (SS1-2-4),
Sainz (SS10-13-14),
McRae (SS6-11),
Martin (SS12).
SS7 was cancelled.

Rally leaders:
SS1-8 Gronholm
SS9-SS14 Loeb

FIA World Rally Championships:

FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers (provisional standings after 1 of 14 rounds): Loeb (F) 10, C. McRae (GB) 8, Sainz (E) 6, Martin (EE) 5, Burns (GB) 4, Robert (F) 3, Duval (B) 2, Schwarz (D) 1.

FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers (provisional standings after 1 of 14 rounds): Citroen 18, Ford 10, Peugeot 6, Hyundai 3, Skoda 2.

FIA Junior World Rally Championship (after 1 of 7 rounds): Tirabassi (F) 10, Katajamaki (FIN) 8, Ligato (I) 6, Broccoli (RSM) 5, Aava (EE) 4, Ceccato (I) 3, Sebalj (HR) 2, Baldacci (RSM) 1.

FIA Production Car World Championship: 7 rounds in 2003, to begin in Sweden.


Next event: February 6 - 9: Uddeholm Swedish Rally, Karlstad, Sweden.