Monte Carlo, Monaco - Sebastian Ogier began his World Rally Championship title defence with a commanding performance in treacherous conditions at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally on Saturday.
The Volkswagen driver, who won his first world crown in 2013, dominated from Day 2, winning three of the five stages on Friday to climb from fourth and take the overnight lead, and extending it as the weather conditions became progressively worse, with first snow then heavy rain and fog making it particularly difficult for the drivers in the two night sessions.
Ogier claimed his 17th WRC career win with a lead of 1min18.9 from fellow Frenchman Bryan Bouffier in a Ford, with Briton Kris Meeke third for Citroen, 36 seconds further back.
It was a perfect start for the world champion who also took two bonus points by finishing second behind team mate Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland on the final power stage in heavy rain.
"It's been a tough weekend."
"We're happy to finish," Ogier wrote on his Twitter feed seconds after he crossed the finish line.
"We had so much fog at the beginning of the last stage, I wasn't in a mood to take risks for bonus points, already perfect."
He didn't need to take any chances after extending his lead by winning the final day's first two stages. He went over the notorious Col de Turini in 19min30, with Jari-Matti Latvala second and Bouffier third.
Bouffier said afterwards: " The snow on the Turini was more like slush, so we couldn't ease up at all."
Ogier won the short second stage - 16.5km from Sospel to Breil Sur Roya - ahead of Meeke to move more than one minute clear of Bouffier overall.
The 14th stage was the first of the night sessions but organisers decided to cancel it and make it a neutral, transitional stage after Slovakian Jaroslav Melicharek's Ford Fiesta, first on the road, got completely sideways and blocked the road, holding up Andreas Mikkelsen, Mikko Hirvonen and Elfyn Evans for several minutes and invalidating their times.
The second night session, Sospel to Breil Sur Roya again, was a power stage, giving the top three finishers extra points - three for first place, two for second and one for third.
But as well as the wet roads, the fog came down.
"It's been really tricky, conditions I'd never experienced before," Mikkelsen said. "I'm really pleased to finish - there was so much fog."
Latvala, who beat Ogier by two tenths of a seconds to win the power stage, called it "a very tough rally" because "there was so much water on the road", while Hirvonen abandoned it.
That helped Bouffier and Meeke, who secured their first podium finishes in the main WRC category.
Meeke, 34, was the first Briton to claim a top-three spot since the late Colin McRae in Monte Carlo in 2003.
Meeke said: This rally's been so crazy - I've never seen anything like this."
Former Formula One star Robert Kubica, starting his first full season in the World Rally Championship, retired on Friday after his Ford skidded off the road, while Hyundai drivers Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Dani Sordo of Spain retired on Thursday.
Kubica crashed heavily in an Italian rally in February 2011, suffering massive injuries to the right side of his body, almost severing his forearm, and with fractures to his leg and shoulder.
1 Sebastien Ogier (France) Volkswagen Polo-R - 3hrs 55min14.4
2 Bryan Bouffier (France) Ford Fiesta RS) +1min18.9
3 Kris Meeke (Britain) Citroen DS3 +1min54.3
4 Mads Ostberg (Norway) Citroen DS3 +3min53.9
5 Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) Volkswagen Polo-R +6min08.3
6 Elfyn Evans (Britain) Ford Fiesta RS +8min37.4
7 Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) Volkswagen Polo-R +11min42.3
8 Jan Melicharek (Slovakia) Ford Fiesta RS +21min56.2
Ogier 7 (SS5 to SS7, SS9, SS10, SS12, SS13)
Kubica 2 (SS1, SS2)
Bouffier 2 (SS3, SS8)
Latvala 3 (SS4, SS11, SS15)
Note: Stage 14 cancelled
Thierry Neuville (Belgium) Hyundai i20
Dani Sordo (Spain) Hyundai i20
Robert Kubica (Poland) Ford Fiesta RS
Mikko Hirvonen (Finland) Ford Fiesta RS
World Championship Standings - Drivers
1 Sebastien Ogier (France) 27 points
2 Bryan Bouffier (France) 18
3 Kris Meeke (Britain) 16
4 Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) 13
5 Mads Ostberg (Norway) 12
6 Elfyn Evans (Britain) 8
7 Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) 6
1 Volkswagen Motorsport 37 points
2 Citroen Abou Dhabi WRT 33
3 M-Sport WRT (Ford) 10
Reuters, Sapa-AP, AFP