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Sébastien Loeb and Isabelle Galmiche have won the Monte Carlo Rally

Yes you read that right. The nine-time WRC champ is a Monte winner once more, and his co-driver has an incredible background

Published: 23 Jan 2022

Holy cow. We’re four days into the new hybrid generation of the World Rally Championship and it’s already served up an instant classic, with two legends of the sport trading blows in a Monte Carlo Rally for the ages.

Nine time champion Sébastien Loeb - in a debut, one-off drive for M-Sport and its new Ford Puma - demonstrated that even at 47 he’s as fast as ever, prevailing over Toyota’s eight-time champ Sebastien Ogier in a compelling tussle played out over 17 epic stages.

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Ogier had grabbed an early lead on the iconic Col de Turini on Thursday night, but Loeb hit back on Friday morning with four stage wins on the bounce before Ogier countered once more. Remarkably at the end of stage 10 - with more than 100 miles of racing behind them - the pair were completely equal on time with not even a tenth between them. Absurd.

However the Frenchmen ended Saturday more than 20 seconds apart as Ogier delivered a stunning display on stage 13 to bank a healthy advantage heading into the final day. It looked like the decisive moment but there was one more dramatic twist to come as the reigning champion suffered a puncture on the penultimate stage, turning his near half-minute lead into a deficit of 9.5 seconds.

Ogier got agonisingly close to eliminating that gap but a 10-second jump-start penalty at the beginning of the final power stage virtually cost him the rally: without it, his rival's margin of victory would've been just half a second. As it goes Loeb is now the oldest ever winner of the Monte, 19 years after his first victory way back in 2003.

It also means Loeb draws level with Ogier as an eight-time winner of the event, but the really astonishing thing is the manner in which it was achieved. Nine-time champ or not Loeb is, as the saying goes, no spring chicken, and he only properly started getting to grips with the car after flying in for testing directly after the Dakar Rally… which ended nine days ago.

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The car itself is entirely new and built to a completely new set of regulations that the drivers reckon will take months to fully exploit. Not if your name is Seb, apparently.

And then there’s his co-driver. Isabelle Galmiche has worked with Loeb before, largely in testing, but in decades of rallying she’s never been under the spotlight like this. The result makes her the first female winner of the Monte Carlo Rally since Fabrizia Pons in 1997, then co-driving for Piero Liatti in a Subaru Impreza.

TG spoke to Galmiche outside the Monaco service park last night, via a translator on account of her limited English and this writer’s vastly worse French. Does the history matter to her?

“I know there are many women competing in rally at a high level, so of course it’s something exciting,” she said. “But it doesn’t put me under pressure. What I feel is indescribable. These three days have been fantastic and I appreciate it very much.”

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Her performance at Loeb’s side comes in a situation that could hardly be any more ‘in at the deep end’. She’s had to adjust to the driver’s specific requirements for pace notes, and M-Sport has provided extensive training - as it does with all its co-drivers - to help deal with any mechanical problems that might befall them out on the road.

Luckily those skills weren’t needed and now she can enjoy the moment. And perhaps more opportunities will arise now that Loeb’s cameo is over. “Of course, I won’t decide about that,” she explained. “But if there are more rallies, I will be happy to be part of it.”

Soon it will be back to school for Galmiche. Literally: the 50-year-old is a maths teacher by trade, albeit one leading an incredible double life. Her students, she reveals, don’t even know she’s here. “I haven’t talked about it too much but I think when I come back everyone will know! I don’t know how they’re going to react.”

Will she show off the trophy once they’ve recovered from the shock? “No!”

All this on a weekend that also included Adrien Fourmaux’s frightening (and somehow injury-free) hillside crash, Gus Greensmith's maiden stage win, Elfyn Evans’s Italian Job moment and a podium finish for Craig Breen. The WRC may be all new, but in terms of drama nothing’s changed. Expect more of the same at Rally Sweden next month.

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