The Irish crew of Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Ford Puma Rally1) delivered a splendid third place on Rally Monte Carlo, the opening round of the World Rally Championship that marked their debut with the M-Sport Ford team and also the beginning on the new Rally1 hybrid era.
They took the final step of the podium as their teammates Sebastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche reclaimed the lead on the penultimate stage and went on to finish 10.5 seconds ahead of the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) of Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas.
Describing his pace as average through the opening two legs, Breen began Saturday's stages in sixth place. Benefitting from changes made by his M-Sport team, he gained a position on the day’s first stage (S.S.9). Encouragingly, his time was only 6.1 seconds shy of the fastest stage time.
It was a day of incredible change and all to Breen’s benefit. Ott Tanak (Hyundai) retired after hitting a rock face that damaged the front of his car; Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) broke a front damper that punched through the bonnet costing him several minutes and Elfyn Evans (Toyota Yaris), who was third, slid off the road on S.S. 11 and lost some 20 minutes as Breen moved into third.
Meanwhile, Loeb and Ogier shared the lead. There was little between them until the final stage of the day. Ogier, who led by five seconds, spotted that his arch-rival had fitted four Pirelli soft compound tyres so as to make time on the dry sections before minimising the time loss on the ice. Although Ogier had decided to mix two soft tyres and two snow tyres on his Toyota GR Yaris, he made a last-gasp switch to the same combination and gained a massive 16.1 seconds. With almost a minute of a cushion to fourth place, Breen wasn’t risking his podium position as Rovanpera, his nearest rival, narrowed the overnight deficit to 37.8 seconds with a fastest stage time.
On the final leg (Sunday) Breen protected his third place and extended the gap to Rovanpera as Ogier and Loeb battled for supremacy. On the penultimate stage Ogier suffered a puncture leaving Loeb with a 9.5 second lead entering the final Power stage. More drama followed as Ogier incurred a ten-second penalty for a jump start, Loeb did enough to claim his 80th WRC win with a winning margin of 10.5 seconds. Eamonn Boland/Mick Morrisey (Ford Fiesta) finished 31st.