WRC legend Loeb victorious on rally return
World Rally Championship legend Sebastien Loeb added yet another victory to his glittering list of achievements after winning the Azores Rally at his first attempt.
The nine-time WRC champion was invited by event organisers to tackle the famous Portuguese island rally, which this year has dropped off the European Rally Championship calendar.
Piloting a Toksport Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 machine for the first time, Loeb and co-driver Laurene Godey combined to fend off three-time WRC event winner Andreas Mikkelsen to win the gravel rally by 19.2s.
Making his first conventional rally start of the year, after finishing second on the Dakar rally raid in January as part of his World Rally-Raid Championship programme with Prodrive, Loeb won the first four stages before fellow Skoda driver Mikkelsen pipped the Frenchman by 0.7s on Stage 5.
That trimmed Loeb’s lead to 15.1s at the end of Friday’s leg, and former factory Volkswagen, Citroen and Hyundai WRC driver Mikkelsen became locked in a head-to-head with a road-sweeping Loeb on Saturday.
Mikkelsen, a two-time Azores winner, clinched five consecutive stage wins and reduced the deficit to Loeb to 8.4s before the final two stages.
However, a mistake from Mikkelsen on the penultimate test would prove costly. The Norwegian clipped a bank which resulted in a 10.7s time loss and allowed Loeb to extend his advantage. The test was won by WRC2 regular Erik Cais, also driving a Skoda.
Loeb completed the victory in style by winning the rally-ending powerstage by a second from Mikkelsen. One-time WRC driver Nil Solans claimed the final podium position.
Writing on Twitter, Loeb said: “Thank you, Azores Rally. An incredible rally, a top co-driver, a perfect car, amazing tyres... a weekend I'm not ready to forget.”
Sebastien Loeb, Laurene Godey, Skoda Fabia RS Rally2
Photo by: Press Image
Prior to this weekend’s event, Loeb’s last rally outing was with the M-Sport Ford WRC team at the Acropolis Rally last September, where he and Isabelle Galmiche led before an alternator failure put the pair out of contention.
It had been hoped that Loeb would rejoin M-Sport for a part-time WRC campaign but a deal is yet to be reached with the 49-year-old. M-Sport team principal Richard Millener revealed last week that the team will only consider adding to its driver roster to help Ott Tanak’s championship aspirations later in the year.
New M-Sport signing Tanak was also in action yesterday, driving a Ford Puma at Rallye des Ardennes in Belgium to gather asphalt mileage ahead of next month’s Rally Croatia.
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