Latvala ends Loeb's winning streak
|By Matt Beer
||Sunday, May 24th 2009, 10:44 GMT
Jari-Matti Latvala turned his troubled season around and ended Sebastien Loeb's unbeaten run in the 2009 World Rally Championship by winning the Rally Sardinia.
The Finn, who led home team-mate Mikko Hirvonen in a Ford one-two ahead of Loeb, had started his season with a string of mistakes, including a ferocious accident in Portugal that saw his car roll 17 times down the side of a cliff.
Ford kept faith with Latvala despite his lack of points, and he rewarded team boss Malcolm Wilson with a consummate victory in Italy this weekend.
"It is a big relief," said Latvala. "It was a great thing that I was able to win this rally, it really means a lot to me. It's been unbelievable, but I have also been a little bit lucky with things being on my side. This has come at a really important point."
With road order expected to be a major factor this weekend, Latvala benefited from his seventh place in the starting list to lead on Friday, while Loeb and Hirvonen both deliberately dropped time at the end of the first leg in a bid to ensure the other had less favourable conditions for Saturday - allowing Latvala to end the day 40s in front.
While Hirvonen closed the gap to 9s during leg two, Loeb's challenge for victory ended when he was delayed by a damaged tyre after a trip off the road.
It looked like Hirvonen would easily overcome Latvala before the finish, but suddenly this morning running first on the road became an advantage rather than a disadvantage, as dust hung in the very still air and ruined visibility for those chasing Latvala - which meant the young Finn could pull away again.
Ford then resisted the temptation to apply team orders, allowing Latvala to come home 29.4s clear of Hirvonen.
Loeb recovered to third, beating Petter Solberg on the final loop, but the world champion's position is in some doubt as the FIA is investigating whether seat belt rules were adhered to immediately before he stopped to change his damaged wheel on Saturday. He said that if he kept third he would be relatively satisfied given his tricky weekend.
"It's still third place, so we keep the lead of the championship and we lose only two points - for the moment, it looks like that," said Loeb. "It didn't work this weekend, everything was bad, so third is not so bad."
To add to Citroen's disappointment, Loeb's team-mate Dani Sordo was never a factor, due to turbo problems of varying severity on all three days and a damaging rock impact on Friday.
Solberg did not give up third without a fight, but had to settle for fourth, 14s behind Loeb.
Evgeny Novikov drove conservately today to ensure a breakthrough fifth place - exactly the kind of sensible result the Citroen Junior team had urged its drivers to aim for. His team-mates Sebastien Ogier (who had also been a top six contender at first) and Conrad Rautenbach both had to use superally after damper failures, although Ogier's rally ended with a brush with a barrier on Saturday.
Their incidents were typical of the attrition that decimated the rest of the WRC field. Henning Solberg (Stobart Ford) battled with Novikov and Ogier until leg two, when he first picked up a puncture then later broke his front suspension.
Hydraulic problems on Friday morning left Solberg's team-mate Matthew Wilson trailing the field right from the start, but the dramas ahead helped him recover to sixth.
Adapta Subaru's Mads Ostberg could have done even better than seventh after his best drive of the year so far. He was challenging Novikov for fifth until a steering arm broke at the end of leg two, then held off fellow superally runner Solberg by just 0.6s today. Solberg did all he could to catch the Subaru, winning SS16 outright and ending the final stage with a very battered Ford.
Works Ford driver Khalid Al Qassimi had been set for seventh, potentially a career-best, until power steering problems struck on Saturday. He was then further delayed by a trip off the road and subsequent brake issues today.
A superb three-way Production fight between Patrick Flodin, Patrik Sandell and Nasser Al-Attiyah became a head-to-head between the latter pair when differential problems slowed Flodin on Saturday. Sandell looked like he had the pace to take a third win of the season, but Al-Attiyah mounted a superb charge on the final loop and stole victory by just 1.5s.
Behind them, Pirelli Star Driver Jarkko Nikara - who was not registered for Production points this time - stunned by shrugging off a string of mechanical dramas to close on Sandell and Al-Attiyah, having been an amazing seventh fastest overall on SS13.
Martin Prokop took an outstanding Junior win, battling back from electrical problems and penalties on Friday, and an impact with a tree on Saturday, to beat Michal Kosciuszko to victory. Alessandro Bettega also led for a while until a Saturday crash.
Pos Driver Car Time
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford 4h00m55.7s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 29.4s
3. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 1m43.7s
4. Petter Solberg Citroen + 1m57.6s
5. Evgeny Novikov Citroen + 5m11.8s
6. Matthew Wilson Ford + 7m29.3s
7. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 13m20.6s
8. Henning Solberg Ford + 13m21.2s
9. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen + 19m31.1s
10. Nasser Al-Attiyah Subaru + 19m43.7s