Loeb handed dramatic NZ victory

Sebastien Loeb has snatched a surprise victory in the Rally New Zealand after the leading Fords both hit problems in the penultimate stage

Loeb handed dramatic NZ victory

Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala went into Whaanga Coast in first and second places for Ford, with Loeb only third and having conceded defeat following a costly spin earlier today.

But when Hirvonen lost 50 seconds with a puncture and spin in the stage, and Latvala was forced to retire after hitting a rock and damaging his radiator, Loeb found himself elevated from third to first.

"I'm happy to win for sure," he said. "It was a really difficult rally, changing all the time, with some strategy coming in. It's been a really long weekend.

"It's a pity what happened to Mikko because he was doing really, really well, but it's a race, it's like that. It was a really good battle.

"The problem was this morning I was not able to make up the gap I had and I also made a mistake. At that point I thought I'd lost the race and I could maybe fight for second, but here we are winning again."

To complete a perfect result for Citroen, Loeb's teammate Dani Sordo emerged in second ahead of the delayed Hirvonen, giving Loeb and Citroen a huge boost in their respective championship battles.

"I'm very, very happy because this is an important result for my progression on gravel," Sordo said.

Loeb had been sceptical about his chances of victory for most of the weekend, fearing he would lose too much time to the Fords when running first on the road on day one. Sure enough he lagged behind Hirvonen and Latvala during the opening loop, but when the stages were repeated after lunch on Friday, Loeb charged back onto Hirvonen's tail, only to receive a 30 second penalty for being late into SS4.2 after his Citroen refused to start.

However, that ensured that Hirvonen would be first on the road on Saturday, and Loeb was duly able to demolish the gap to the Ford and take the rally lead - before deliberately slowing in the day's final stage to avoid being first on the road today.

Loeb therefore started leg three in third, with Latvala having moved into the lead ahead of Hirvonen. The expectation was that Loeb would use his advantageous road position to chase down and pass the Fords this morning, but instead a spin in SS12 dropped him to fourth behind Sordo.

Though he quickly repassed his teammate and closed on Latvala (whose road position had seen him rapidly lose time and the rally lead to Hirvonen), Loeb admitted that Hirvonen was out of reach.

That all changed in the repeat run through Whaanga Coast, though, as Hirvonen and Latvala's shock dramas turned the rally inside out and dealt a major blow to Hirvonen's title aspirations.

"I was really, really confident before Whaanga Coast that we were going to win this rally," rued Hirvonen. "But what can you do? We just had a puncture and now we're third. I know we can win rallies, and this season is not over yet, so we'll just go flat-out in the next rallies."

To add to Ford's woe, Francois Duval's Stobart Focus also retired in Whaanga Coast, crashing out of the rally. The Belgian had held a comfortable fifth up to that point - an impressive performance in his first gravel event for several seasons.

The retirements ahead allowed Petter Solberg to grab fourth after a difficult rally for Subaru. His teammate Chris Atkinson held fifth initially only to crash out on Friday afternoon, while Solberg lost a lot of time with suspension problems in the first loop of the event. He gradually regained ground, securing fourth when Urmo Aava (Estonian Citroen) had his second spin of the weekend this morning. Aava rejoined to equal his career-best result in fifth.

Suzuki enjoyed a largely trouble-free rally to take sixth and seventh with Per-Gunnar Andersson and Toni Gardemeister, with only a time-consuming hydraulic leak for the latter and a late puncture for the former interrupting their progress.

Munchi's Ford driver Federico Villagra completed the points scorers, while his teammate Henning Solberg was perhaps the unluckiest driver of the weekend. Power steering failure on Friday morning cost him 10 minutes, but he subsequently claimed seven stage wins as he charged back to ninth, although his times were helped somewhat by a favourable road position.

With Matthew Wilson (Stobart Ford) running down the order under Superally rules following gearbox problems on day one and Conrad Rautenbach severely delayed when his Citroen fell sick in Whaanga Coast, Production class winner Martin Prokop found himself in the overall top ten at the end of the event.

Pos Driver Car Time 1. Loeb Citroen 3h59:18.9 2. Sordo Citroen + 17.5 3. Hirvonen Ford + 41.5 4. P Solberg Subaru + 2:48.9 5. Aava Citroen + 3:30.7 6. Andersson Suzuki + 7:37.4 7. Gardemeister Suzuki + 7:54.9 8. Villagra Ford + 8:35.0 9. H Solberg Ford + 9:15.2 10. Prokop Mitsubishi + 13:49.0 
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Series WRC
Drivers Sébastien Loeb
Author Matt Beer
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