Loeb snatches GB win from Latvala
|By Matt Beer||Sunday, December 7th 2008, 12:34 GMT|
Sebastien Loeb snatched victory from Jari-Matti Latvala in the final stage of the Wales Rally GB, overcoming a late penalty to win by 2.7 seconds.
The result is Loeb's 11th win of the 2008 season - a new record - and gives his Citroen team the manufacturers' championship for the first time since 2005.
The victory also means that Loeb has now won all of the World Rally Championship's regular events at least once in his incredible career.
The thrilling finish was an appropriate end to an event made extremely challenging by icy conditions. With the drivers required to use standard gravel tyres on the very treacherous surface, most of Friday's stages were either truncated or cancelled on safety grounds, and the stages remained tough all weekend.
As the usual front-runners started cautiously, Junior champion Sebastien Ogier took a remarkable early lead in his first event in a World Rally Car, with privateer Subaru driver Mads Ostberg challenging him for first place and Suzuki's Per-Gunnar Andersson also running in the top three at times on Friday.
The underdog stars had benefited from more favourable road positions, but that didn't detract from their extremely impressive performances.
But as the conditions improved slightly, the regular contenders moved back to the front and the young drivers faded. Ogier had gearbox problems late on Friday and then rolled into retirement in Saturday's first stage, with Ostberg also crashing out before the end of day two. Andersson managed to stay on the road, but the Suzuki's pace declined and he dropped out of podium contention.
Latvala and Loeb then dominated the rest of the weekend. The Ford driver took the lead before the end of day one, but saw his advantage slashed early on Saturday as he struggled while running first on the icy roads. A clutch problem in the Cardiff superspecial also cost him time, and meant he started day three just seven seconds in front.
Loeb then reduced that gap to 1.4 seconds in this morning's first, very treacherous loop, before leaping ahead with a spectacular time in the second running of Rheola - only to discover he had incurred a jump start penalty at the start of the stage, putting him 2.2 seconds behind Latvala again.
Both drivers pushed to the absolute maximum in the final stage, with Loeb inching closer to Latvala with every split.
"It doesn't look good," Latvala admitted as he waited for Loeb to cross the line. "I tried the best I could. I can't drive better. If I lose, the better (driver) will win."
In the closing kilometres Loeb finally edged ahead to clinch one of the most thrilling victories of his career.
"This one was really incredible," said Loeb. "I didn't like it, it was very tricky with the ice and no gravel crew, so I was not happy all weekend, but today it was very exciting to fight with Jari-Matti. I tried everything I could in the last one."
Dani Sordo briefly challenged Latvala for the lead on Saturday morning, before settling for third to ensure that Citroen wrapped up the manufacturers' championship.
Subaru's Petter Solberg stayed in touch with the leaders until the final day, when the Impreza's lack of pace on the frosty gravel saw him fall away in fourth place. His teammate Chris Atkinson crashed heavily in Walters Arena on Friday evening, but escaped serious injury.
Andersson equalled his career-best result by taking a second consecutive fifth place, helped by the chasing Henning Solberg's retirement with broken suspension in the penultimate stage.
Solberg's Stobart Ford teammate Francois Duval therefore moved up to sixth, after a cautious drive on his return following the vicious Rally Japan accident that injured his co-driver Patrick Pivato.
Toni Gardemeister held on to seventh in the second Suzuki, despite Mikko Hirvonen closing to within 13 seconds of him this morning. Hirvonen's roll on Friday effectively ended Ford's manufacturers' title hopes, and came while trying to make up for an over-cautious start to the rally. The accident dropped him right back to 47th, but he was at least able to salvage a point.
Leading home drivers Matthew Wilson and Barry Clark completed the top ten for Stobart Ford, with their temporary teammate Valentino Rossi pleased to make the finish in 12th place.
The MotoGP legend started conservatively in Friday's icy conditions, then built up speed and made quietly impressive progress from his initial 45th position, staying out of trouble in weather that caught out many WRC regulars.
"I'm happy because we approached the race in the right way - we started slowly and tried to understand (the conditions)," said Rossi. "We didn't make any important mistakes, and we arrived at the end.
"Especially this morning we were fast, we fought with the faster guys, so we are so happy. We finished the rally and the car is in one piece. We enjoyed it a lot."
Pos Driver Car Time 1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 2h43:19.6 2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 2.7 3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 1:10.6 4. Petter Solberg Subaru + 1:49.6 5. Per-Gunnar Andersson Suzuki + 3:54.1 6. Francois Duval Ford + 4:57.8 7. Toni Gardemeister Suzuki + 5:15.0 8. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 5:28.8 9. Matthew Wilson Ford + 8:03.9 10. Barry Clark Ford + 9:43.1