MONACO (AP) Sebastien Ogier made the perfect start to the defense of his world title by winning the season-opening Monte Carlo rally on Sunday, clinching the 39th race win of his career and first for his new team.
The 33-year-old Frenchman, who also won Monte Carlo in commanding style last year, won what he considers his favorite race for the fourth straight year.
Over snow and icy roads in the French Alps, he finished 2 minutes, 15 seconds ahead of Finnish driver Jari-Matti Latvala and about 3 minutes clear of Estonia's Ott Tanak, who held on despite being hampered by engine problems.
''I'm very happy and I can assure you the conditions did not make things easy,'' Ogier said. ''It was tough to be the first out onto the snow on Friday.''
Ogier, who has won the past four world titles, is looking to become only the second driver to win five. Countryman Sebastien Loeb holds the record with nine, all won consecutively.
Last month, Ogier announced that he was leaving Volkswagen to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season, and he had only minimal practice time to get accustomed to the car before this race.
''I was hoping to win, but to do so in my first race with so little preparation is just incredible,'' Ogier said. ''Well done to the team, you have worked so hard. You deserve this win just as much, guys.''
Latvala, driving for Toyota, was surprised by his own performance.
''It's a fantastic result. Before the start I was aiming for a top-six finish,'' Latvala said. ''I hadn't been on the podium since Finland in July.''
Overnight, Ogier led Tanak by 47 seconds and Latvala by 2:20.
He was given some unexpected help, however, when Belgian driver Thierry Neuville sustained a puncture on Saturday's last stage when he was in the race lead, allowing Ogier to move up into first place.
Despite finishing third in Sunday's first stage - which was won by Spaniard Dani Sordo - Ogier padded out his lead over Tanak to nearly one minute.
With Tanak struggling with engine problems and incurring a time penalty, Ogier was even further ahead after stage 15, which featured the climb to the 1,604-meter summit of the iconic Col de Turini. Tanak dropped down to third and Latvala moved into second.
Stage 16 was cancelled for safety reasons because there were too many spectators, leaving just the final power stage.
Neuville salvaged some pride by winning it to claim five bonus points and climb up to 12th overall, having drifted down to 15th after Saturday's mishap.
Neuville will look to bounce back at the next event in the 13-race season, which is in Sweden in three weeks.
On Thursday night, a spectator was killed after being hit by a car. Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of Monte Carlo's two night stages.