Loeb clinches record fifth WRC title

Sebastien Loeb has become the first five-time champion in World Rally Championship history after clinching the 2008 title with third place in the Rally Japan

Loeb clinches record fifth WRC title

The Citroen driver's championship rival Mikko Hirvonen led Jari-Matti Latvala in a dominant Ford one-two in the event, but it was not enough to keep the title battle alive.

Loeb had declared before the weekend that he wanted to seal the crown in Japan so he could drive flat-out in Britain later this month and attempt to break his own record by taking an 11th win of the season.

It looked like he might be disappointed on Friday as the works Ford duo and Stobart Ford driver Francois Duval filled the top three places.

But then Duval, who had just taken second from Latvala, crashed heavily in SS6, leaving his co-driver Patrick Pivato with a fractured pelvis and tibia, and causing most of the afternoon's stages to be cancelled.

Duval's violent departure also handed Loeb the crucial third place he required, and with the Subarus not quick enough to get into the podium battle, all Loeb had to do for the rest of the weekend was moderate his pace and follow the dominant Ford duo home as very rutted stage surfaces and then torrential rain on day three made life extremely difficult for the WRC field.

Loeb had a brief scare when he spun in the very wet penultimate stage, but duly claimed his fifth championship in a row, and moved clear of quadruple title-winners Tommi Makinen and Juha Kankkunen in the all-time WRC records.

"That's incredible," said Loeb. "That was a terrible rally. It was big, big pressure since the start and it couldn't have been more tricky than it was.

"But now it's a great moment. There is no pressure now, it's perfect.

"I'm relieved, it's a big, big relief. We equalled the record last year, now we've beaten it and we are the only ones."

Hirvonen was always set to win the rally, with Latvala committed to helping his teammate's title bid, although the gap closed to just five seconds this morning when the younger Finn fared better in the downpours. But Latvala then backed right off this afternoon to ensure Hirvonen took his third win of the year.

It wasn't sufficient for the title, though, but Hirvonen had no doubt that his rival was a worthy champion.

"Everybody can see he won 10 rallies so he definitely deserved it this year," he said. "I'll just have to try again next year."

Latvala was very satisfied with second on his return to the works Ford squad after having been demoted to Stobart for the recent asphalt events.

"It's very good for the team and very good for me because it's the third rally now that's gone well after the bad August," he said. "It's a long time since I did a good result on the gravel. Now I can be happy."

Subaru had hoped for more than distant fourth and eighth places in their home rally, but Petter Solberg had shown encouraging pace before ripping the right rear wheel from his Impreza late on Saturday. He rejoined under Superally rules to salvage a point, while his teammate Chris Atkinson survived a spin in the same hole that wrecked Solberg's suspension to take fourth.

Fellow home team Suzuki scored their best WRC result yet, with Per-Gunnar Andersson arguably the star of the rally as he produced a series of spectacular stage times while charging back to fifth place following a puncture.

"It's fantastic," said Andersson. "It started well and I had no problems at all, but then unfortunately I had a puncture yesterday and dropped more than two minutes. I thought that was it but then we pulled ourselves together in the afternoon and tried to push on today."

His teammate Toni Gardemeister had no answer to the rookie's pace, but finished sixth.

"I'm really happy that it's over now, this was not a nice rally at all," said Gardemeister. "But it was a very good result for the team for sure."

After a very promising start to the event - which saw him running fifth ahead of Loeb after SS1 and then dicing with the Subarus throughout Friday morning - Matthew Wilson steadily lost pace and fell back to seventh for Stobart Ford.

Attrition decimated the rest of the small WRC entry. Dani Sordo retired the second Citroen with turbo problems on Friday, before using Superally to come back to 10th, Henning Solberg (Munchi's Ford) broke his suspension on day two then went off into a ditch this morning, while Conrad Rautenbach (PH Citroen) crashed out in the very first stage.

That left Federico Villagra to survive a litany of problems in the second Munchi's car to take ninth.

Pos Driver Car Time 1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 3h25:03.0 2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 31.1 3. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 2:30.6 4. Chris Atkinson Subaru + 3:42.4 5. Per-Gunnar Andersson Suzuki + 5:12.9 6. Toni Gardemeister Suzuki + 6:09.4 7. Matthew Wilson Ford + 7:05.3 8. Petter Solberg Subaru + 13:19.9 9. Federico Villagra Ford + 15:40.8 10. Dani Sordo Citroen + 17:08.5 
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Series WRC
Drivers Sébastien Loeb
Author Matt Beer
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