STOP PRESS: Petter Solberg was excluded after the event when his car was found to be underweight [see separate story - CLICK HERE
Citroen's Sebastien Ogier has won Rallye de France - and with Sebastien Loeb retiring on the first day in the sister works DS3 WRC, the championship race is now well and truly on.
The eleventh round in the 2011 World Rally Championship produced a thrilling event and Loeb, the pre-event favourite, was taken out of the equation early on, with engine problems forcing him out in only the third stage. That left Ogier to take the early initiative and he finished the first loop on Friday five seconds up on Petter Solberg. However on the afternoon loop, Solberg and Dani Sordo both fought back, the latter ending the first day top - a historic first for the new MINI WRT team.
Day two was just as close and the three-way fight continued until SS11, when Petter picked up a slow puncture and lost over 40 seconds. That left Sordo and Ogier out front and following SS12 the former held P1 by just 0.2 seconds.
Ogier put in a charge though after that, winning four of the five tests on the Saturday afternoon to build a 9.5 second lead.
Although the Frenchman saw his cushion almost halved mid-way through the final leg, he pulled away again in SS21 and SS22 and following the final test, he beat Sordo by 6.3 seconds.
The 25 points for the win - and 1 for being third in the Power Stage - now leave Ogier just three points off Loeb and Ford's Mikko Hirvonen in the drivers' championship.
“I am very happy,” said Ogier after winning in front of his home fans. “This result is a very good thing for the championship. After Sebastien [Loeb]'s problem I had to face a lot of pressure as I was the only one left in the rally [for our team]. It was very difficult especially with Sordo, who was flat out on this surface and deserves our warmest congratulations. It's been a good weekend though and we got good points.”
Hirvonen was less happy with his weekend and had a number of escapes throughout the three-days. However while he was well and truly beaten by his team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala, he still finished in front, as Jari-Matti again played the team game and deliberately picked up a two minute penalty prior to the final test.
Mikko also gained another position post-event when Petter was excluded - something that puts him third and now means he has scored exactly the same amount of points as Loeb.
“This weekend has been really difficult for us and I only want to think of the points that we have taken for the championship,” Mikko said. “We are back in the battle for the title after Loeb's retirement.”
Meanwhile, Sordo was absolutely spectacular for MINI and led after day one and mid-day through day two. He also set four quickest stage times in the John Cooper Works WRC car en-route
to the runners-up spot and second best in the Power Stage. Indeed in the end Sordo managed 19 top-three times from a possible 23, remarkable given this is the new MINI's team's only fourth WRC event – and second on asphalt.
“It's our best result with the MINI,” said Sordo. “We have been able to fight for victory and it's very encouraging. The good thing is that the next rally will be in Spain [my home country].”
Petter Solberg also had a great event and was right in the thick of the battle for the victory until that puncture on Saturday. He finished third, but sadly was excluded after the finish when his privately-run DS3 WRC car was found to be 4 kg underweight.
Latvala might also have challenged for the win, but for losing so much time on Friday in SS3. He fought back however and won five of the final day's six stages, including taking his very first Power Stage win. He was classified fourth.
“If I want to be a good asphalt driver, then I must learn and this is the day that I learned and raised my pace,” Latvala noted. “We've made progress since the last asphalt round in Germany and I'm increasingly confident with the car.
“It was my best performance on asphalt. I made some mistakes and I wasn't consistent enough, so I still I need to sustain pace and consistency for the whole rally, but it's just about fine-tuning. I was hesitant on asphalt before but I'm not afraid of it anymore.”
FERM Power Tools man Dennis Kuipers was next up and rounded out the top five, a career-best result for the Dutchman, with M-Sport Stobart Ford duo Henning Solberg and Mad Ostberg sixth and seventh.
Of the rest, Monster WRT man Ken Block scored his first points of the year with P8, while Pierre Compana was ninth in his privately entered MINI John Cooper Works WRC car and Matthew Wilson tenth, one spot in front of SWRC winner, Ott Tanak.
Tanak dominated the SWRC this weekend and eventually beat Eyvind Brynildsen by just over 2.5 minutes. Martin Prokop was third in the SWRC.
As for the WRC Academy, Alistair Fisher took his maiden victory when Yeray Lemes was handed a five-minute penalty after the finish, dropping the Spaniard to third. Jose Suarez was second.
In terms of retirements, in addition to Loeb, Kris Meeke and Kimi Raikkonen also failed to finish. Raikkonen went out on the road section between SS2 and SS3, after a bizarre collision with Henning Solberg that ended with the F1 2007 world champion in a ditch. Meeke retired on Saturday, crashing out in SS13, while running fifth overall.
The 2011 WRC now heads to Spain later this month, with the penultimate round running from October 20-23.STOP PRESS: Petter Solberg was excluded after the event when his car was found to be underweight [see separate story - CLICK HERE