History was written at the first rally of the 2022 WRC season, as Isabelle Galmiche won the Rally Monte-Carlo as Sébastien Loeb's new co-driver - exactly 25 years after the last female victory of Fabrizia Pons. But she wasn't the only female to succeed that weekend, as Finn Enni Mälkönen navigated Sami Pajari to victory in the WRC3 category.
The 2022 WRC season traditionally kicked-off with the Rally Monte-Carlo - and history was written by Sébastien Loeb and Isabelle Galmiche, who took victory in one of the most legendary events on the calendar. Loeb, the most successful driver in the series' history, became the oldest WRC winner ever at 47 years of age, while Galmiche is the second female co-driver to win a WRC event, 25 years after Fabrizia Pons achieved the same success at Rally Monte-Carlo in 1997.
Galmiche and Loeb are a new driver pairing for the 2022 season, as Loeb's historic co-driver retired. The 50-year-old French woman stepped in: she previously competed in the French championship rallies as co-driver, having made her debut at the age of 36. Galmiche's day job has nothing to do with race cars: she is in fact a math teacher, and she regularly returned to school on Monday after the historical win.
The whole rally was a two-way battle between WRC titans Loeb and Ogier; a late tyre drama on Sunday ended Ogier's victory hopes and Sébastien Loeb and Isabelle Galmiche were able to seal the win with relative ease. But until that point, it was a tough fight between two record-breaking drivers.
At the Shakedown on Thursday, it would be Ogier to end the day on top of the timing sheets, 0.5 seconds ahead of Loeb and Elfyn Evans in third place.
But Loeb came back to the top on Friday, as he pushed hard throughout the day. Evans and Ogier were more careful and lost time to the seven-time Monte-Carlo winner.
The real drama started on Saturday morning, when several drivers hit trouble due to the difficult conditions and ice on the unforgiving mountain roads. Evans slid off the course, but also Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak, Gus Greensmith and Oliver Solberg had problems keeping their cars on the icy road. Ogier reclaimed the lead after the day, ahead of Loeb. Craig Breen was more than one minute behind in third.
But there was more drama on Sunday, as the rally leader Ogier got a left front puncture and was slowed down enough to lose his comfortable lead, ultimately handing the win to Loeb. Loeb won his eight Rally Monte-Carlo and broke the record for the oldest winner of a WRC event at 47. The Frenchman has put his name on the history books of this prestigious rally in the past three decades.
His co-driver Isabelle Galmiche made her first top-tier start and is the first female co-driver winner since 1997. She started in 228 rallies so far, including six WRC starts before last weekend. Galmiche won the first rally in the new hybrid-generation as second female co-driver.
“It’s a dream come true" - she commented. "It was already a dream just getting to take part in Rallye Monte-Carlo alongside Séb in such a good car, but to actually win, it doesn’t get any better than this. What a crazy story!”
But there was more about the weekend in Monte-Carlo.
Finnish co-driver Enni Mälkönen was just as successful and clinched the Rally Monte-Carlo victory in the WRC3 class together with Junior WRC champion Sami Pajari.
On Thursday, Jan Černý led the rally at the end of the day, ahead of Pajari and Enrico Brazzoli. In the WRC3 class, all drivers start with the identical M-Sport Poland Ford Fiesta Rally3 cars.
Pajari/Mälkönen had the best start into Friday, as they set fastest lap on the first stages - but were off pace on the final stage, which made for some hard work as Černý remained in the lead with a 26,7 second gap to the Finns. Behind them, both Brazzoli and Zoltán László followed with over a 11 minute gap.
Saturday was the day of the fight-back for the Finnish duo: Pajari/Mälkönen set the fastest lap times and chased down Černý in the lead. And they were able to achieve the goal, ending the day 14,7 seconds ahead of Černý Pajala and winning the whole rally with three more stage wins on Sunday.
Černý tried everything in his power to get back into the pace, but the Finns were unbeatable: Sami Pajala and Enni Mälkönen won, ahead of Černý and Brazzoli, the latter 19 minutes and 16 seconds behind the leader.
We can't wait to see Sébastien Loeb and Isabelle Galmiche back in action in WRC, as the French driver is expected to race in selected rounds this year, next to his Extreme E and Dakar commitments.
Enni Mälkönen and Sami Pajari will be back for Rally Sweden from 24th to 27th February, as part of the Junior WRC championship where they will compete full-time in the 2022 season.
We will also see Emil Lindholm with Reeta Hämäläinen and Betrand Pierrat with Alice Genet, in Sweden, as more female co-drivers are climbing the world rally ladder.