Reigning world champion, Sebastien Loeb has got his title defence off to the best possible start, after winning the Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo Rally today [Sunday], to take the maximum 10 points.

The Frenchman led the event, probably the most prestigious in the World Rally Championship, from start to finish, in the process winning eight of the 15 stages, and taking his third successive win at the Principality, following victories in 2004 and 2003.

"I was perhaps happier after the 2002 event because it was all so new," admitted Loeb. "I made a name for myself that year by dominating the others until a time penalty dropped me to second place.

"Ever since, this rally has been good to me. Each time I take the start I am as motivated as ever and I'm certainly not tired of winning. There's something special about this event: it's the most famous rally of them all and it's where my co-driver Daniel [Elena] comes from. I couldn't have got my 2005 campaign off to a better start."

Loeb's team-mate, Francois Duval had been set to take second in the sister Xsara WRC, however he crashed out yesterday, when he went broadside into a concrete electricity pole. The resultant damage to the side of the car saw co-driver Stephane Prevot airlifted to hospital with leg pains. After checks however, he was fortunate to escape with nothing more than painful bruising.

Ford's Toni Gardemeister took second, over 2 minutes 58.3 seconds behind Loeb, to get his career at Ford off to an almost perfect start - it is his best WRC result to date. The Finn also won the 'Star of the Rally' award.

"I'm so, so happy," he said. "It is a great result for us and to achieve it so early in the season makes it even better. We had a good fight with Petter and Marcus but when I heard that they had problems, then I knew it would be ok. My confidence with the Focus has increased with every kilometre and this result has been achieved without making a single mistake."

Gilles Panizzi took the final spot on the podium despite clutch difficulties that prompted the Frenchman to believe he might not see the finish. His third spot though further proves that 'Mitsubishi are back' and back to compete with the best in the WRC, after a disappointing come-back in 2004.

"For me, I said before that it was important for my team; they needed this success and now they and everyone else can see that Mitsubishi is back. Today we have arrived! This result is very important for everyone's confidence and I feel good that the mechanics and engineers have something to be very proud about," noted Panizzi. "I have driven good cars here in the past, but I have never achieved such a result. To finish third, at home, and more importantly on the most famous event in the championship is incredible."

His team-mate, Harri Rovanpera, also finished in the points in his first tarmac rally since 2002, the Finn was seventh.

Peugeot duo, Markko Martin and Marcus Gronholm were fourth and fifth respectively, the latter in second until he went off the road in SS12 in the process losing a wheel and around 5 minutes, which dropped him down the leader-board.

"I came over the Col de Turini, which was damp but without snow or ice," explained Gronholm. "I had a good feeling with the car and I was able to attack on the descent towards Le Moulinet. On the first tight right-hand corner, I found myself on a sheet of snow - which had been put there by spectators. I couldn't avoid hitting a rock on the outside of the bend and damaging my car's front right suspension. I managed to get to the end of the stage and to service in Monaco on time - despite only having three wheels! Thankfully the team fixed my car and I was able to finish, but it should have been on the podium."

Manfred Stohl was the top privateer in sixth, in his OMV World Rally team Citroen Xsara WRC, while Roman Kresta took the final point in eighth.

Alex Bengue and Anthony Warmbold completed the top ten, the former scooping the final manufacturers' point for Skoda on his works debut.

The Junior WRC category was won by Brit Kris Meeke in his C2 Super 1600, to give Citroen a 'double' of sorts [he was eleventh overall]. Meeke finished 14.5 seconds up on Kosti Katajamaki, with Alan Scorcioni third, also in a Suzuki.

"It is pretty special to win your first Junior World Championship event and to win in Monte Carlo, the opening round of the season for a French team, winning their home event is something else," said Meeke. "This memory will stay with me forever. I feel that I have now proved a point."

Per-Gunnar Andersson and Guy Wilks, who had been running 1-4 in the JWRC until the final stage on Saturday, re-started today under the new regulations. They ended up sixth and seventh respectively, to score what could turn out to be valuable points.

Amongst the other retirees, as well as Duval, Armin Schwarz went out yesterday, crashing in SS7, and as a result may now miss the Swedish Rally in three weeks time after injuring his shoulder. Petter Solberg also went out today, after damaging the front left wheel at the same place as Gronholm.

Stephane Sarrazin, Kresta and Bengue also 'retired', however thanks to the new SupeRally format, they could re-join and continue the event.

The WRC now heads north, for Rally Sweden, in three weeks' time.

Beginning on Friday 11 February, following a ceremonial start in the host town of Karlstad the previous evening, Rally Sweden is the only winter rally of the series and presents crews with a spectacular but bitterly cold environment - in previous years the temperature during the rally has dropped to -30?C.

Over three days, drivers will contest 359.87 competitive kilometres based around the service park in the town of Hagfors, 80km north of Karlstad's Rally HQ. The first stage will start at 0900hrs on Friday 11 February and the last at 1259hrs on Sunday 13 February.


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