By John Kenny
Craig Breen claimed a fantastic victory in the Super 2000 World Rally Championship category of the Monte Carlo Rally, the opening round of the 2012 World Rally Championship, in his Ford Fiesta S2000.
The 21-year-old - winner of the 2011 WRC Academy - claimed victory after completing the final stage on the marathon five-day event on Sunday.
Sweden's PG Andersson (Proton Satria Neo S2000) had led throughout, but the event turned in Breen's favour when Andersson retired on stage 16 on Saturday, handing the series lead to the Irishman.
With no other competitors to contend with, Breen just had to bring the Fiesta home in one piece, which he duly did through the 18 stages.
Although he was officially classed second in the S2000 class behind Germany's Kevin Abbring (Skoda), the latter isn’t registered for the SWRC and, thus, Breen took maximum championship points.
The Waterford driver finished 14th overall.
"This is unbelievable, I'm just delighted and so happy with this victory," said Breen.
“We came here with a plan and it's worked perfectly. Our task was made easier on stage 16 when PG retired, handing us the lead, but this has been the toughest event of my career.
“We've had to contend with every type of weather imaginable. Tyre choice has been a lottery throughout the five days - we were always making a compromise for the varying road surface on each loop of stages.
“I lost a lot of time over the first three days with punctures but in the end our strategy to drive a controlled event has paid off.
“We have 25 championship points heading to Sweden in February and, after a very insecure Christmas period, this is the perfect start to the year."
Breen's next outing in the WRC will be in World Rally Sweden from 9-12 February, but before that event the Irish driver will compete in Rally Finnskog (4 February, Norway).
Breen is using the Norwegian rally as preparation for the snow event in Sweden.
Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb continued his dominance of the Monte Carlo race with a sixth victory in the main event.
The Citroen driver claimed a maximum haul of 28 points after taking the win and also finishing first on the closing power stage which gave him the bonus of three extra points.
The Frenchman powered the DS3 WRC to first place with a dominant display in the principality as his former Citroen team-mate Dani Sordo piloted the Mini to second place.
Loeb said: "It's always a great moment to start the season like this especially in front of so many fans.
He told World Rally Radio: "Full points in the first race is incredible and for sure it's the perfect start. But Monte Carlo is my rally and for the others we will have to see."
Sordo's second place in the Mini John Cooper Works WRC was the manufacturer's first podium on the event since Rauno Aaltonen took the overall victory in 1967 in a Cooper S.
Sordo admitted: "We had no problems at all today. Yesterday I was 'sleeping' a little bit in the stages so lost a bit of time to Petter (Solberg), but I am happy with the result.
"This is great for both me and the team.
"Being second for the second time for our new team is really, really good."
Third place went to Petter Solberg in a Ford Fiesta RS WRC, with Mikko Hirvonen finishing fourth on his debut for the works Citroen squad.
Evgeny Novikov took fifth in the M-Sport Fiesta, with team-mate Francois Delecour in sixth.
Pierre Campana was seventh in the second Mini, Ott Tanak eighth in his M-Sport Fiesta, Martin Prokop (Fiesta) was ninth and Armindo Araujo (Mini) completed the top 10.
Leading overall positions after Stage 18:
1 Sebastien Loeb (Fra) Citroen 4hrs 32mins 39.900secs, 2 Daniel Sordo (Spa) Mini 4:35:25.400, 3 Petter Solberg (Nor) Ford 4:35:54.100, 4 Mikko Hirvonen (Fin) Citroen 4:36:46.700, 5 Evgeny Novikov (Rus) Ford 4:38:43.300, 6 Francois Delecour (Fra) Ford 4:40:27.800, 7 Pierre Campana (Fra) Mini 4:41:11.300, 8 Ott Tanak (Est) Ford 4:43:14.500, 9 Martin Prokop (Cze) Ford 4:48:50.600, 10 Armindo Araujo (Por) Mini 4:48:56.500, 11 Matthew Wilson (Gbr) Ford 4:51:30.900, 12 Kevin Abbring (Ger) Skoda 4:51:36.200, 13 Henning Solberg (Nor) Ford 4:52:56.200, 14 Craig Breen (Irl) Ford 4:57:06.200, 15 Bryan Bouffier (Fra) Peugeot 5:00:05.300, 16 Michael Burri (Cze) Peugeot 5:02:59.400, 17 Cedric Robert (Fra) Citroen 5:05:07.600, 18 Olivier Burri (Swi) Subaru 5:08:10.400, 19 Sebastien Chardonnet (Fra) Renault 5:09:35.200, 20 Paulo Nobre (Por) Mini 5:11:39.600.