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Bryan Bouffier got his Intercontinental Rally Challenge title campaign off to the best possible start by winning the centenary edition of Rallye Monte-Carlo, which finished in Monaco’s harbour front in the early hours of Saturday morning following three day’s of intense competition shown live on Eurosport.

Driving a Peugeot France 207 Super 2000, the 32-year-old from Die in the nearby Drome region, took the lead on a dramatic seventh stage on Thursday afternoon when a freak snowfall coated much of the mountainous roads and made driving conditions treacherous.

Juho Hanninen, who had been leading comfortably in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia S2000, was one of several leading drivers to get caught out by selecting the wrong type of tyre for the wintry conditions. However, Bouffier’s decision to opt for a combination of snow and studded tyres gave him just enough grip to slither through the stages and climb from seventh to first overall despite spinning into a bank at one point.

Bouffier, the French champion who shone on a handful of IRC appearances last year, first emerged as a contender for victory by winning stage six on Thursday having lost time on Wednesday afternoon with a rear differential fault. He began day three with a lead of 28 seconds, which he was able to extend following a controlled, albeit attacking, performance throughout Friday’s five tests. He becomes the 19th different driver to win a round of the IRC since it began in 2007. His success was also the 21st for Peugeot in the series.

Changeable weather conditions are part of Rallye Monte-Carlo folklore and added further spice to this year’s event. That they contributed to Hanninen’s downfall in the space of one afternoon was poor reward for the defending IRC champion, who had excelled by claiming three stage wins in the early running, but had to settle for sixth in the final classification.

With Hanninen caught out by the weather and Czech Republic team-mate Jan Kopecky not showing the sparkle that has made him IRC runner-up for the past two seasons, it was left to Freddy Loix to uphold Skoda’s honour in second overall after the Belgian recovered from a spin on stage six. No driver has won more rounds of the IRC than Loix but he had to settle for second on this occasion.

Le Mans 24 Hours racer Stephane Sarrazin, another driver to drop time in the snow of Thursday, scored four stage wins to complete the final test in third for Peugeot France after his mechanics changed a faulty gearbox in 15 minutes when it got stuck in fourth gear a handful of kilometres into stage 11. The delay dropped him to fifth with two stages remaining before his late charge netted what appeared to be the final podium spot.

But because Sarrazin is unlikely to contest any more IRC events this season in order to concentrate on his other motorsport commitments, he elected to take a time penalty before the final control to promote Guy Wilks to third and help the Peugeot UK driver’s title bid.

Wilks, who is embarking on a full IRC campaign for Peugeot UK in 2011, drove without error in his 207. He lost ground on Friday morning when an intercom fault made it difficult for the Briton to hear co-driver Phil Pugh’s pacenotes. He also reported a few concerns with his rear suspension settings, which he said affected the handling of his car, while his decision to use soft compound tyres for the final brace of stages failed to deliver the pace he craved.

Francois Delecour belied his 48 years and lack of recent international experience, to start day three in second overall in his privateer 207. The 1994 Monte-Carlo winner was languishing in eighth when he made an inspired tyre choice for stage seven by selecting studded tyres. He vaulted up the leaderboard and was quickest of all on stage eight. However, Delecour’s fears that he wouldn’t be able to hold on for a podium in his older-specification car were realised when he began to slip back, his efforts not helped by an engine power glitch on the final night.

Former world champion Petter Solberg had moved into second place on his IRC debut heading to the snow-hit loop of stages on Thursday. But his decision to use intermediate tyres backfired spectacularly and he slipped to a distant seventh before alternator failure stopped his Peugeot 13 kilometres from the finish in Monaco.

Nicolas Vouilloz, competing on his first rally for 12 months, fought back from having to change a punctured front-right tyre on stage one to land seventh overall in a ?koda France-backed Fabia. Vouilloz, the IRC champion in 2007, gave a glimpse of what might have been with the quickest run through the first Col de Turini stage.

Toni Gardemeister also lost ground with a puncture on day one but recovered to take 10th for Astra Racing after overcoming a sticking throttle. Giandomenico Basso, a four-time IRC event winner, overtook the Finn on the final evening on his first appearance in a 207 by winning stage 11.

Ex-Formula One driver Alex Caffi impressed on his Monte-Carlo debut to finish 11th with M-Sport Ford Fiesta driver Julien Maurin 12th. IRC Production Cup winner Florian Gonon took 13th in his Subaru Impreza WRX with Pierre Campana making up a deficit of nearly two minutes to win the IRC 2WD Cup after he was delayed by a puncture on Thursday morning. Mark Wallenwein achieved his aim of finishing his first Rallye Monte-Carlo, taking 21st for Skoda Auto Deutschland.

Several drivers failed to make it beyond day one including PROTON Motorsports drivers P-G Andersson and Chris Atkinson. Andersson crashed on stage two while an electrical failure curtailed Atkinson’s bid 700 metres from the start of the opening test.

Andreas Mikkelsen damaged his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia’s suspension sliding into a wall four corners into the first stage and retired. Fellow Norwegian Henning Solberg also failed to go beyond stage one after dropping considerable time with a puncture.

Thierry Neuville crashed his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 three kilometres from the finish of the first stage. Bruno Magalhaes left the road at high speed on stage four although thankfully neither he nor new co-driver Paulo Grave were injured after inflicting sizeable damage to their Peugeot Sport Portugal 207.

DRIVER QUOTES
     
Bryan Bouffier (France), Peugeot 207 S2000, first overall: “It’s really fantastic to have won this special rally. I am so happy for Peugeot who gave me this opportunity and did a really good job. There was big pressure on me, there were a lot of fantastic drivers and the conditions were also very difficult. I am just so happy.”

Freddy Loix (Belgium), Skoda Fabia S2000, second overall: “The first day was not the most difficult but we were quite controlled. Then the second day was very difficult with the weather. To keep second place is a good result and I’m quite pleased.”

Guy Wilks (United Kingdom), Peugeot 207 S2000, third overall: “It was hard work on that last stage because we had a soft tyre that wasn’t right for the conditions. But we pushed like hell and made no big mistakes. It’s a good result first time in the car.”

TOP TEN IRC POSITIONS AFTER DAY THREE
    
1 Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 3h32m55.7s
2 Freddy Loix (BEL)/Frederic Miclotte (BEL) Skoda Fabia S2000 +32.5s
3 Guy Wilks (GBR)/Phil Pugh (GBR) Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m19.7s
4 Stephane Sarrazin (FRA)/Jacques-Julien Renucci (FRA) 207 S2000 +1m21.9s
5 Francois Delecour (FRA)/Dominique Savignoni (FRA) 207 S2000 +1m22.4s
6 Juho Hanninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m29.3s
7 Nicolas Vouilloz (FRA)/Benjamin Veillas (FRA) Skoda Fabia S2000 +4m47.8s
8 Jan Kopecky (CZE)/Petr Stary (CZE) Skoda Fabi a S2000 +7m45.9s
9 Giandomenico Basso (ITA)/Mitia Dotta (ITA) Peugeot 207 S2000 +8m46.0s
10 Toni Gardemeister (FIN)/Tomi Tuominen (FIN) Peugeot 207 S2000 +9m09.0s

IRC Production Cup: Florian Gonon (SUI)/Sandra Arlettaz (SUI) Subaru Impreza WRX
IRC 2WD Cup: Pierre Campana (FRA)/Sabrina de Castelli (FRA) Renault Clio R3

IRC STANDINGS
 
Drivers after round one of 12
1 Bryan Bouffier 25pts
2 Freddy Loix 18pts
3 Guy Wilks 15pts
4 Stephane Sarrazin 12pts
5 Francois Delecour 10pts
6 Juho Hanninen 8pts
7 Nicolas Vouilloz 6pts
8 Jan Kopecky 4pts
9 Giandomenico Basso 2pt
10 Toni Gardemeister 1pt

Manufacturers after round one of 12
1 Peugeot 40pts
2 Skoda 26pts

IRC Production Cup after round one of 12
1 Florian Gonon 25pts
2 Vojtech Stajf 18pts
3 Giacomo Oligari 15pts
4 Maurizio Verini 12pts
5 Claude Carret 10pts
6 Eamonn Boland 8pts
7 Herve Knapick 6pts
8 Miguel Baudoin 4pts
9 Remi Tosello 2pts
10 Pierre Bos 1pts

IRC 2WD Cup drivers after round one of 12
1 Pierre Campana 25pts
2 Michael Burri 18pts
3 Renaud Poutot 15pts
4 Eric Mauffrey 12pts
5 Adrien Tambay 10pts
6 Andrea Crugnola 8pts
7 Jean-Michel Raoux 6pts
8 Dimitrios Amaxopoulos 4pts
9 Lillian Vialle 2pts
10 Christophe Fontaine 1pt

IRC 2WD Cup manufacturers after round 12 of 12 (best seven results)
1 Peugeot 10pts 
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