Citoren's Sebastien Loeb put in a faultless performance to claim his second consecutive Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo victory yesterday [Sunday], the Frenchman winning in his Xsara WRC by more than one minute.

Loeb, who had lead from the end of leg one, when he snatched it away from Marcus Gronholm, dominated the event, pulling clear of the rest of the field during Saturday's three competitive stages. In the end he beat Markko Martin by 1 minute 12.6 seconds.

"The conditions were harder than last year, but the fight was easier," said Loeb at the conclusion of the event. "Everything went well and the Xsara once again showed its true class.

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"I have a special feeling for this event. It gave me some disillusions two years ago [when I was demoted to second], but since then, it has gone really well. This rally is legendary, and to win it for a second time gets our season off to the best start possible."

Behind him, a battle raged between Ford drivers Francois Duval and Martin and it was not until the penultimate stage that Martin overhauled his team-mate to claim second position.

"It's been an incredibly tough rally," noted Ford's number one, Martin. "We've had snow, ice and fog, and these Monte-type conditions are quite new to me so to finish second is much more than I expected.

"This weekend has been playing on my nerves for a long time. I was close to leading on Friday but, on Saturday morning, I lost so much time in the fog. Perhaps I need to eat more carrots! I set out to get second place back, and managed to do so, but I've been counting down the stages and I'm glad it's over. It's a great start to the season for Ford, but now we've got to keep this up for the rest of the year."

Duval meanwhile had to make do with third, but was he ordered to let Martin through - as the Estonia is more likely to be in with a chance of taking the drivers' title? Speaking in the post-event press conference, when asked by a journalist if Ford boss Malcolm Wilson asked him to back off, the Belgian diplomatically avoided the question.

"You will have to ask Malcolm directly," said Duval, "I just did my job and drove well. I stalled twice today, and Markko chose the right tyres in the Turini and was faster there. I did not want to take any risks."

Marcus Gronholm was also in the thick of the fight for second and third, but the Finn ultimately came home in fourth position in the new Peugeot 307.

"I'm glad it's all over! I've always found the changing weather conditions of this event very difficult, so fourth place is not a bad result at all," commented the double world champion, "Maybe we could have been higher up if we had not slid off the road Saturday, and lost 40 seconds, but I can't complain about anything else. The most important thing is that the new 307 WRC has been both fast and reliable, so I feel very positive about the rest of the season."

Petter Solberg was the greatest loser, the Subaru driver dropping from fifth to seventh after damaging the front suspension in stage 14. His position was taken by Freddy Loix in the second registered 307.

"What can I say? I just hit a patch of snow, braked a little too late and slid into a wall," explained the Norwegian. "It's a shame as I wasn't really driving to risk anything, but these things just happen sometimes. Perhaps I was a little unlucky, but at least we didn't drop out of the points altogether. Luckily, we're taking two points away this year, which is two more than last year! Overall, it's not such a bad result especially when you consider that there are fifteen more rallies still to go."

Gilles Panizzi also benefited from Hollywood's misfortune, the former Peugeot driver taking sixth in the new Lancer WRC04 - a good start then for Mitsubishi, following their sabbatical in 2003.

"I am very happy," said Panizzi, "We did not make a lot of testing and of course we are all completely surprised we have not had more problems the first time the car has run in these conditions. To finish and score points is very good. I am confident with the team and the car, and this is the start of a new chapter in my motorsport career; I have found a good team."

Of the rest Olivier Burri was the top privateer, taking eighth in his Subaru, and also scoring the final world championship point. Josef Beres was ninth, while Nicolas Bernardi was tenth overall, and also the winner of the Junior World Rally Championship [JWRC] category.

Bernardi finished over 4 minutes ahead of his nearest class rival, Suzuki's Urmo Aava, while Brit Kris Meeke completed the top three in his Opel Corsa in the JWRC.

In total nine 'Junior' crews completed the event, in the overall that number was increased by a further eleven, making twenty finishers from 43 starters, two more dropping out Sunday, during the final leg, which consisted of two stages, both repeated once, totalling around 100 kms.

Three manufacturer entries were lost during the course of the event, Mitsubishi's Gianluigi Galli going out on day one, in SS5, while Carlos Sainz and Mikko Hirvonen both retired on Saturday in SS9.

The WRC now heads for Sweden and the only all-snow round in the championship. The Swedish International Rally is based in Karlstad on 5 - 8 February and snowy conditions and studded tyres will provide some of the fastest and most spectacular action of the year. Sweden counts towards the Production Car World Rally Championship, the Junior runners next in action on the Acropolis Rally in Greece on 3 - 6 June.