Sebastien Loeb took 'one of his greatest' ever wins today in Finland, triumphing on the classic for the second time.
Loeb led pretty much throughout in his works Citroen DS3 WRC moving up into P1 in SS2 and then concluding the short opening leg 3.8 seconds up on his team-mate, Sebastien Ogier. On Friday morning he maintained his position at the head of the pack, despite still running first on the road. However in the afternoon he slipped back, only to be handed back top spot in the final test as the usual tactics came into play [see separate story - click here
On Saturday he thus started with a slender 1.5 second cushion, but with conditions damp, the moisture bound together the loose gravel and Loeb pulled away, heading into Service F post-SS16 having increased his lead to 10.8 seconds.
This afternoon Loeb pushed on and he immediately gained almost 7 seconds, when Ogier, his nearest challenger, lost time with a front-left puncture in SS17. That left Jari-Matti Latvala to pick up the mantle and the Finn was quickest in SS18, to close to within 13 seconds of P1 and to move up to second overall.
Loeb however was still in control, and managed his advantage over the remaining stages, conceding only 0.5 seconds in SS19, 2.2 seconds in SS20 and 1.9 seconds in SS21.
Heading into the event ending 4.19 km Laajavuori Power Stage, Loeb had 8.4 seconds in hand and unsurprisingly he held on to eventually triumph by 8.1 seconds. It was his 65th career win and his fourth of the season, one that sees him extend his lead in the drivers' championship from 17 points to 27 with five rounds to go.
“It's one of the greatest wins of my career,” said Loeb, who becomes the first non-Scandinavian to ever win the event twice. “I had to work for it and it took a long time before it took shape. Sometimes you have to go beyond the limits to open up the gap. I felt really good on the roads with the Citroën DS3 WRC, even more so than in the past with the Xsara or the C4.
“My aim was to be in the lead in the world championship before the events on tarmac. I've achieved it, but there are still a lot of points up for grabs.”
Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile had to settle for the runners-up spot, although he felt victory would have been possible, had there been just a few more tests: “I was closing on the lead all the time but I ran out of kilometres. Just two more stages would have been enough,” he noted.
“I drove badly this morning when the car didn't perform as I would have liked and I didn't know what to do. I finally realised that I needed to make a change in the differential, and when I made that everything came together. Unfortunately it was too late.”
Ogier completed the podium and he was miffed to see his chances of victory denied by misfortune in SS17: “It was all going pretty well until the last loop,” he lamented. “We were in a good position to push for victory until we punctured. I feel frustrated because it was a racing incident that ruined our chances.”
Mikko Hirvonen was next up and staged a remarkable recovery after he lost two minutes on Thursday in the opening test when he hit a tree. He charged back up from 36th to sixth on Friday, before making further progress today as he over hauled both Petter Solberg and Mads Ostberg. In the end he was fastest in 13 of the 22 stages, including the Power Stage, which saw him bag the maximum 3 bonus points.
“I'm disappointed not to win,” said Mikko, “But my fightback was good and I had great speed all weekend, which makes it even more of a shame that I wasn't able to fight for victory. I have to thank the fans who gave me great support all rally. I love my home event and I enjoyed driving in front of them.”
Petter Solberg rounded out the top five, although it wasn't a weekend he will look back on very fondly as he was never on the pace and eventually finished more than a minute off the leaders: “It was hard. You are allowed to be disappointed sometimes,” he said. “Things just did not work out at all this weekend. I was unable to fight for the win. It is a big disappointment.”
Further back M-Sport Stobart Ford trio Mads Ostberg, Henning Solberg and Matt Wilson held positions 6 through to 8, although the latter two were a long way off P6 – more than 1.5 minutes adrift.
“I've been very happy with my speed this weekend. It's been a hard fight with both Mikko and Petter and I really needed to do more than my best to try and finish ahead of them today but unfortunately it wasn't enough,” Ostberg reflected. “We have been going absolutely flat out this afternoon and I have given it my all so I'm not at all disappointed to miss out on fifth place.
“It's great to be able to match the times of some of the 'top five' - everything has been working very well for us today so this has been a great confident boost. I'm just hoping that this weekend will have helped us find the extra help that we need for us to secure us more events.”
Of the rest F1 2007 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen and SWRC class winner, Juho Hanninen completed the points' scorers in ninth and tenth, the former continuing to get to grips with the WRC.
“These roads are as quick and as difficult as ever,” said Raikkonen. “But we still managed to set good times. I'd like to thank the many spectators who cheered us on during the weekend. We were able to maintain a good pace throughout the whole rally despite a few minor mistakes. It's encouraging for the rest of the season.”
In the support categories, as mentioned, Hanninen won the SWRC, while in the Production WRC and WRC Academy, Hayden Paddon and Egon Kaur took 'gold' respectively.
In terms of retirements a number of runners went out, most noticeably Jari Ketomaa, who had led after SS1 and who had been running fifth in his privately entered Fiesta RS WRC, until he went off the road in SS8. Evgeny Novikov also failed to finish in another Fiesta, but he was sidelined by mechanical issues.
MINI WRC men Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo also failed to get to the end, both forced out on the final loop on 'precautionary' grounds after overheating problems – a shame as they were both on course for drivers' points, with Sordo in P7 and Meeke in P10 post-SS16.
The WRC now heads to Germany in three weeks time for the first asphalt event of the season.