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WORLD : Loeb hits the jackpot ! - 28 January 2003 - 19:46
Rally Monte-Carlo 2003 - Review

When he crossed the finish line here in 2002, Sebastien Loeb thought he had pocketed his first World Championship win. Flying high after having accomplished such a feat, he came back to earth with a thud when race officials penalized him for a technicality. The young Alsatian promised himself he'd get his revenge; the 71st running of the legendary Monte-Carlo rally would be his.

Mission accomplished! Sebastien Loeb has won Round One of the 2003 World Rally Championship, his two teammates following him for an all-Citroen podium.

Peugeot strikes out in Monaco
Up until Guy Frequelin's team won this year's event, Peugeot was the last French constructor to have won in the Principality; that was way back in 1985, during the glorious days of the 205 Turbo 16. Ever since it came back to the rally scene with its 206 WRC, the Sochaux team won on every continent, but a win in Monaco has remained elusive.

Once again this year, the dreams of Corrado Provera's team came crashing down. The three Peugeot drivers had various misfortunes, preventing them from a shot at victory. Panizzi's fragile health was dealt a crushing blow when he was assessed a one-minute penalty even before things got started. Burns kept fighting a car that was not setup to his liking for this type of terrain. Leader in the first segment of the 'Monte', Marcus Gronholm looked to be in control, but the current world champion made a rare mistake in SS9, ruining his chance for a victory.

Loeb: the new asphalt king?
The two French constructors involved in the WRC have a reputation of being unbeatable on asphalt. The championship's tarmac events usually sees a battle between the two Groupe PSA 'cousins', their opponents having to settle for whatever is left. Such was the case for the first part of this rally, but Peugeot's misfortunes left the door to the podium wide open for Citroen, and they didn't waste their chance.

Last year, Sebastien Loeb did not compete in the Championship's entirety. The hotly anticipated duel between him and his asphalt rival Gilles Panizzi was to take place in Germany. Unfortunately, the Peugeot driver had to renounce, victim of an injury. This year's Monte-Carlo would thus be the place where the two drivers would fight it out. Once again, Loeb won by default, Panizzi suffering from a variety of ailments. We'll have to wait for the Deutschland Rally in July for the next installment of 'Who's The Asphalt King'.

Still at Citroen, ex-Ford drivers Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz quickly felt at ease in their new car, the two veterans putting their Monte-Carlo to good use for a podium finish.

Ford could not ask for more
Having three drivers whose average age is under 24 meant that a win wasn't a reasonable expectation at Ford. In a rally where experience plays such a pivotal role, the youngsters couldn't possibly fight for the win, or even for access to the podium. Markko Martin proved everyone wrong by finishing a mere three seconds outside of the Top 3.

Francois Duval leaves Monaco with two points in his pockets, his teammate Mikko Hirvonen having learned that the roads around Monte-Carlo can be treacherous.

Rough start for Hyundai and Skoda
Lacking testing time before the start of the season, the Hyundai drivers showed up in Monaco with their Accent not properly setup for this difficult terrain. Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix struggled with their cars as well as with the road conditions. Unfortunately, the Belgian went off course and had to retire, leaving the German as the sole defender of the South Korean constructor's colors.

Schwarz fine-tuned his setup as the race wore on. He gets a point for his 8th place and offers an additional one to his employer. As for Skoda, the Czech builder knew that their Octavia wasn't ideally suited to the Monte's roads, and weren't expecting much from their trip in southern France.

With Toni Gardemeister out of the race in SS2, Didier Auriol had Skoda's hopes squarely on his shoulders. The veteran didn't disappoint for his return to the WRC, quickening his pace throughout the rally. Finishing in ninth spot, the Frenchman offers Skoda a welcomed two points.

Nothing to show for at Subaru
The only constructor without at least one of their entries crossing the finish line, Subaru is thus in the unenviable position of being the only team without a point. No one doubts the speed of the Impreza, Tommi Makinen and Petter Solberg having been in the thick of things (even more so for Solberg) until they got caught in SS5, forcing both drivers to retire.

Young hopeful Cedric Robert making an impression
The Finns are rightly considered as the Kings of rally, but French drivers are starting a reputation of their own on asphalt. Sebastien Loeb and Gilles Panizzi are almost unbeatable on tarmac. Add one more name to this list: Cedric Robert, who drove his Bozian Racing 206 WRC to a fantastic 6th place. After finishing just outside the points in last year's Sanremo, Robert now has his first points in the World Championship.
The Bozian Racing Team's success is heightened by Roman Kresta's 10th place finish.

Renault dominates the Junior Championship
The Clio Super 1600 driven by Simon Jean-Joseph and Brice Tirabassi completely dominated this first event of the JWRC season. The Martinican can't qualify for the championship due to the FIA's new age restriction; that left the top 'official' spot to Simon's teammate, Brice Tirabassi.

CAPSIS International, 26/01/2003

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