Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb cruised to his third consecutive Rallye Monte Carlo victory on Sunday, becoming only the fourth driver to win the classic event three times in a row since 1970.

Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb cruised to his third consecutive Rallye Monte Carlo victory on Sunday, becoming only the fourth driver to win the classic event three times in a row since 1970.


The Frenchman led the three-day event from start to finish. Toni Gardemeister was second in his first outing for Ford Rallye Sport and Loeb's Mitsubishi-driving compatriot, Gilles Panizzi, was third.


Loeb’s feat equals those of Finn Tommi Makkinen, German Walter Rohrl and Italian Sandro Munari at the Principality.


"This was the perfect rally for us," he said. "Very much like last year. It was a very tricky event – lots of drivers made mistakes, but fortunately we didn't. It's very motivating to start the year with 10 points."


Had he not been disqualified on a technicality in 2002, Loeb would have equalled Rorhl and Munari's record of four Monte Carlo victories.


"To win three times here is great but deep inside I feel 2002 also belongs to me. Let's say I won three and a half," he said.


All the other leading contenders for this year's title faltered one after the other at the weekend. Loeb's Belgian team-mate Francois Duval wrapped his car around an electricity pylon on Stage Six, resulting in his co-driver, Stephane Prevot, having to be airlifted to hospital in Nice.


“Francois smashed into the pylon on Stephane's side of the car. He seems fine but Stephane was complaining about his legs,” said a Citroën spokesman.


Loeb was forced to stop when he arrived at the scene as the force of the blow knocked the pylon across the course. Organisers were left with no option but to cancel the stage.


Peugeot’s Marcus Gronholm and fourth-placed Petter Solberg (Subaru) ran into trouble on SS12. The spectators at Monte Carlo have a particularly bad habit of throwing snow onto the road, catching drivers unawares.


And this is exactly what happened on this switchback mountain stage. Shortly after the famed Col de Turini, snow on the road caught Solberg off guard, and the Norwegian ace slid into the wall, losing his left front wheel and retiring from the event.


"I'm extremely disappointed," said Solberg. "It seems like this sort of luck is with me every time in Monte Carlo. No mistakes all rally, we're catching up places, everything's perfect – and then this."


Shortly after that, Gronholm hit the same patch and the same wall, but his Peugeot incurred a little less damage, so he was able to limp to the end of the stage, but at the cost of over five additional minutes, dropping him from second to fifth.


“Everybody knows the spectators throw snow on the road," rued Gronholm. "I came over the Col de Turini, which was damp but without snow or ice. 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.


"We 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 we should have been on the podium," the Finn added.


Loeb knew of the dangers of Col de Turini as well, and it may have been a combination of caution and Citroën teamwork that spared the French ace from the fate that befell Solberg and Gronholm.


"Just after the summit, some spectators put some snow on the road – a real trap!" Loeb said. "I had that possibility in my pacenotes, and I asked my safety crew to note where there is snow on the sides and where most spectators are standing."


"I was also warned by the marshals that (Solberg and Gronholm) got caught," Loeb continued. "It's a corner which we could drive in fourth gear, but I arrived at 30 km/h and actually drove through at 20 km/h. You really have to anticipate because if you react when you're on the snow it's already too late."


Meanwhile, Gardemeister could well be the driver to watch this season. The Ford team leader was unable to match Loeb's pace, but displayed the same mixture of caution and skill as the Frenchman.


He eventually finished two minutes 58,3 seconds behind Loeb, with Panizzi 3:40 behind the world champion.


"I'm very pleased with this result, especially as it's my first rally with the team," Gardemeister said. "They worked really well over the whole event. There were no serious problems at all. I've always done well on this event, but I like Sweden a lot, and I'm really looking forward to going there."


Panizzi showed the potential of the Lancer WRC, climbing steadily up the leaderboard and finishing on the podium and almost two minutes ahead of Peugeot driver Markko Martin.


Martin, who switched from Ford to Peugeot for 2005, was still finding his comfort zone with the 307 WRC, but a steady drive brought him a fourth place – ahead of Gronholm – and some valuable points for the new championship season.


The rest of the points-paying positions were filled by Manfred Stohl (privateer Citroën), Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) and Roman Kresta (Ford). Thanks to the new 2005 restart rules, Kresta was able to continue in spite of an accident on the final Saturday stage, albeit with a five-minute penalty, and still score a point for Ford on his debut.


:: According to the www.supersport.co.za, highlights of the 2005 Rallye Monte Carlo will be broadcast at 19:00 on Monday 24 ::