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Sebastien Ogier has kicked off the defence of his World Rally Championship title in style by easing to a comfortable victory on the Monte Carlo Rally.

Though the Frenchman was challenged initially by Kris Meeke, he was beginning to put distance between himself and the Citroen driver when his rival was forced to retire with gearbox problems, allowing him the clear air he needed to play it safe to the end.

Another flawless performance by the title favourite, Ogier stamped his mark with eight fastest times over 16 stages, showing his pace when it mattered and favouring caution at the right times. Even so, he was still pushed most of the way by Meeke, the Abu Dhabi Racing Citroen driver keeping him honest and briefly nosing ahead on day two.

However, Meeke's retirement - caused by rock damaging the intercooler - would release Ogier into a lead of more than two minutes with just Sunday's three relatively short stages remaining. From here, he kept it tidy on SS14 and SS15, before turning it up again on the Power Stage finale to secure a maximum haul of points.

Behind Ogier, Andreas Mikkelsen prevailed over Thierry Neuville in their tussle for second place to make it a VW 1-2, the Norwegian kicking off his 2016 season with his best-ever result on the Monte Carlo Rally.

Though he admittedly benefitted from the misfortune of Meeke ahead and also team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, who crashed out of a comfortable third place on SS11, he still had to fend off the attentions of Neuville, whose rapid stage topping pace on SS12 and SS13 had moved him to just 12secs behind his rival coming into the final day.

However, with Neuville hitting problems on the penultimate stage, the Belgian toured through the short final stage to ensure himself of a nonetheless important podium finish for the new Hyundai i20 WRC on its competition debut.

Mads Ostberg completed his first event back with M-Sport Ford - and alongside new co-driver Ola Floene - with a relatively lonely run to fourth place, the Norwegian never able to challenge the drivers ahead of him whilst ensuring he kept a sizeable gap behind to fifth.

That position was taken by Citroen prot?g? Stefan Lefebvre, who was all-but-confirmed with fifth when Bryan Bouffier - who was just four seconds behind his countryman at the end of SS12 - hit a wall on SS13 and failed to start the fourth day. The result marks a maiden top five finish in WRC for the youngster and goes some way to making up for team-mate Meeke's disappointment for Citroen.

After a difficult start to the rally, Dani Sordo gained pace and two positions on the final day at the expense of the retired Bouffier and the cautious Ott Tanak to secure sixth place, the Spaniard also notching up two extra points for going second fastest on the Power Stage. Tanak, meanwhile, takes a solid debut result for the new DMACK team, despite struggling for grip throughout the event.

On an event of relatively high attrition, beyond Meeke, Latvala and Bouffier's exits, other retirements included Hayden Paddon, Robert Kubica and Eric Camilli, who all fell victim to the same icy right-hander on SS3 and SS6. With Kubica and Camilli retiring on the spot, Paddon restarted on day three and proceeded to show flashes of impressive stage pace on his Monte debut at the wheel of the previous generation i20, but couldn't recover a representative result.

In WRC2, Elfyn Evans lived up to his arguable title favourite status with a suitably dominant performance in the Ford Fiesta R5, his stunning stage times on day two in particular spurring him on to a clear victory, despite twice having to contend with punctures.

Finishing eighth overall, the Welshman's winning margin would be more than two minutes over rallying veteran Armin Kremer in his Skoda Fabia, with Quentin Gilbert completing the top three for the WRC2 runners.

 

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