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Jan 25, 10:31 AM EST

Defending champion Ogier wins Monte Carlo rally

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MONACO (AP) -- Defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier of France began his title defense with a victory at the season-opening Monte Carlo rally Sunday, finishing ahead of Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway as Volkswagen swept the podium places.

Ogier led Latvala by 42.8 seconds overnight and increased his lead after Sunday's three stages to finish 58 seconds ahead of Latvala and more than two minutes clear of Mikkelsen.

"Winning Monte Carlo means a lot for every driver, but especially for me," Ogier said after clinching it for the third time. "This event had the best atmosphere I have experienced on a rally. When I drove the stage close to my home village, the atmosphere was magical."

The 31-year-old Ogier was only interested in protecting his lead and drove cautiously, failing to win a stage Saturday or Sunday.

"The important thing is to try to win the rally, not today's stages," he said. "It's the most important rally of the season. The weather makes it a huge challenge but the satisfaction is great when you make it."

Citroen driver Mads Ostberg of Norway finished fourth.

Retired nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb of France - driving as a guest at the race - won Sunday's penultimate stage and finished eighth overall.

Britain's Kris Meeke won Sunday's opener - a short 10-kilometer (6-mile) trek - with Ogier finishing sixth and gaining a further five seconds on Latvala, who was ninth.

Ogier again placed fifth on the next special - stage 14 from La Bollene Vesubie to Sospel - and finished more than 10 seconds clear of Latvala.

Stage 14 featured the race's famed hairpin ascent up Col de Turini, and Polish driver Robert Kubica, the winner of four stages, had to pull out as he went off the road at the finish.

Latvala also had problems negotiating Turini's flying finish.

"The brakes are horrible," he said. "I had no bite on them and it was very, very scary to drive."

Loeb, a seven-time winner at Monaco, won the stage ahead of Ostberg.

Meeke clinched stage 15 - a special power stage - to take maximum bonus points, with Loeb taking two bonus points for second spot and Latvala taking one for third.

The next event is at Rally Sweden next month.

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