Bryan Bouffier got his Intercontinental Rally Challenge title campaign off to the best possible start by winning the centenary edition of Rallye Monte-Carlo, which finished in Monaco's harbour front in the early hours of Saturday morning following three days of intense competition.

Driving a Peugeot France 207 Super 2000, the 32-year-old from Die in the nearby Drome region, took the lead on a dramatic seventh stage on Thursday afternoon when a freak snowfall coated much of the mountainous roads and made driving conditions treacherous.

Juho Hanninen, who had been leading comfortably in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia S2000, was one of several leading drivers to get caught out by selecting the wrong type of tyre for the wintry conditions. However, Bouffier's decision to opt for a combination of snow and studded tyres gave him just enough grip to slither through the stages and climb from seventh to first overall despite spinning into a bank at one point.

Bouffier, the French champion who shone on a handful of IRC appearances last year, first emerged as a contender for victory by winning stage six on Thursday having lost time on Wednesday afternoon with a rear differential fault. He began day three with a lead of 28 seconds, which he was able to extend following a controlled, albeit attacking, performance throughout Friday's five tests.

He becomes the 19th different driver to win a round of the IRC since it began in 2007. His success was also the 21st for Peugeot in the series.

"It's really fantastic to have won this special rally," Bouffier said. "I am so happy for Peugeot who gave me this opportunity and did a really good job. There was big pressure on me, there were a lot of fantastic drivers and the conditions were also very difficult. I am just so happy."

Changeable weather conditions are part of Rallye Monte Carlo folklore and added spice to this year's event. That they contributed to Hanninen's downfall in the space of one afternoon was poor reward for the defending IRC champion, who had excelled by claiming three stage wins in the early running, but had to settle for sixth in the final classification.

With Hanninen caught out by the weather and Czech Republic team-mate Jan Kopecky not showing the sparkle that has made him IRC runner-up for the past two seasons, it was left to Freddy Loix to uphold Skoda's honour in second overall after the Belgian recovered from a spin on stage six. No driver has won more rounds of the IRC than Loix but he had to settle for 'silver' on this occasion.

"The first day was not the most difficult but we were quite controlled. Then the second day was very difficult with the weather. To keep second place is a good result and I'm quite pleased," Loix reflected.

Le Mans 24 Hours racer Stephane Sarrazin, another driver to drop time in the snow of Thursday, scored four stage wins to complete the final test in third for Peugeot France after his mechanics changed a faulty gearbox in 15 minutes when it got stuck in fourth gear a handful of kilometres into stage 11. The delay dropped him to fifth with two stages remaining before his late charge netted what appeared to be the final podium spot.

But because Sarrazin is unlikely to contest any more IRC events this season in order to concentrate on his other motorsport commitments, he 'elected' - or rather Peugeot instructed him - to take a time penalty before the final control to promote Guy Wilks to third and help the Peugeot UK drivers title bid.

Wilks, who is embarking on a full IRC campaign for Peugeot UK in 2011, drove without error in his 207. He lost ground on Friday morning when an intercom fault made it difficult for the Briton to hear co-driver Phil Pugh's pacenotes. He also reported a few concerns with his rear suspension settings, which he said affected the handling of his car, while his decision to use soft compound tyres for the final brace of stages failed to deliver the pace he craved.

"It was hard work on that last stage because we had a soft tyre that wasn't right for the conditions," Wilks said. "But we pushed like hell and made no big mistakes. It's a good result first time in the car."

Francois Delecour belied his 48 years and lack of recent international experience, to start day three in second overall in his privateer 207. The 1994 Monte-Carlo winner was languishing in eighth when he made an inspired tyre choice for stage seven by selecting studded tyres. He vaulted up the leaderboard and was quickest of all on stage eight. However, Delecour's fears that he wouldn't be able to hold on for a podium in his older-specification car were realised when he began to slip back, his efforts not helped by an engine power glitch on the final night.

Former world champion Petter Solberg had moved into second place on his IRC debut heading to the snow-hit loop of stages on Thursday. But his decision to use intermediate tyres backfired spectacularly and he slipped to a distant seventh before alternator failure stopped his Peugeot 13 kilometres from the finish in Monaco.

Nicolas Vouilloz, competing on his first rally for 12 months, fought back from having to change a punctured front-right tyre on stage one to land seventh overall in a Skoda France-backed Fabia. Vouilloz, the IRC champion in 2007, gave a glimpse of what might have been with the quickest run through the first Col de Turini stage.

Toni Gardemeister also lost ground with a puncture on day one but recovered to take tenth for Astra Racing after overcoming a sticking throttle. Giandomenico Basso, a four-time IRC event winner, overtook the Finn on the final evening on his first appearance in a 207 by winning stage 11.

Ex-Formula One driver Alex Caffi impressed on his Monte-Carlo debut to finish 11th with M-Sport Ford Fiesta driver Julien Maurin 12th. IRC Production Cup winner Florian Gonon took 13th in his Subaru Impreza WRX with Pierre Campana making up a deficit of nearly two minutes to win the IRC 2WD Cup after he was delayed by a puncture on Thursday morning. Mark Wallenwein achieved his aim of finishing his first Rallye Monte Carlo, taking 21st for Skoda Auto Deutschland.

Several drivers failed to make it beyond day one including Proton Motorsports drivers P-G Andersson and Chris Atkinson. Andersson crashed on stage two while an electrical failure curtailed Atkinson's bid 700 metres from the start of the opening test.

Andreas Mikkelsen damaged his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia's suspension sliding into a wall four corners into the first stage and retired. Fellow Norwegian Henning Solberg also failed to go beyond stage one after dropping considerable time with a puncture.

Thierry Neuville crashed his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 three kilometres from the finish of the first stage. Bruno Magalhaes left the road at high speed on stage four although thankfully neither he nor new co-driver Paulo Grave were injured after inflicting sizeable damage to their Peugeot Sport Portugal 207.

The 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge now takes a break before resuming for the Rally Islas Canarias, which runs from April 14-16.

Rallye Monte Carlo: Overall standings after Stage 13 (Top 10):

1. Bryan BouffierPeugeot 207 S20003hrs 32mins 55.6secs
2. Freddy LoixSkoda Fabia S2000+00mins 32.5secs
3. Guy WilksPeugeot 207 S2000+01mins 19.7secs
4. Stephanie SarrazinPeugeot 207 S2000+01mins 21.9secs
5. Francois DelecourPeugeot 207 S2000+01mins 22.4secs
6. Juho HanninenSkoda Fabia S2000+01mins 29.3secs
7. Nicolas VouillozSkoda Fabia S2000+04mins 47.8secs
8. Jan KopeckySkoda Fabia S2000+07mins 45.9secs
9. Giandomenico Basso Peugeot 207 S2000+08mins 46.0secs
10. Toni Gardemeister Peugeot 207 S2000+09mins 09.0secs


11. Alex CaffiSkoda Fabia S2000+13mins 06.2secs
12. Julien MaurinFord Fiesta S2000+13mins 38.9secs
13. Florian GononSubaru Impreza WRX+16mins 05.8secs*
14. Pierre CampanaRenault Clio R3+24mins 02.5secs **

* IRC Production Cup winner
** IRC 2WD Cup winner

Notable retirements:

SS1. Chris AtkinsonProton Satria Neo S2000Mechanical
SS1. Thierry NeuvillePeugeot 207 S2000Accident
SS2. Andreas Mikkelsen Skoda Fabia S2000Suspension
SS2. Henning SolbergFord Fiesta S2000Suspension
SS2. P-G AnderssonProton Satria Neo S2000Suspension
SS2. Andreas AignerMitsubishi Lancer Evo XFire
SS4. Bruno Magalhaes Peugeot 207 S2000Accident
SS8. Luca BettiPeugeot 207 S2000Mechanical
SS10. Jean-Sebastien Vigion Peugeot 207 S2000Mechanical
SS13. Petter SolbergPeugeot 207 S2000Mechanical

all times unofficial