Citroen number one driver Sebastien Loeb took his third win in a row with victory on Rally New Zealand today, a result that puts him in a commanding position in the drivers' championship as the 2012 World Rally Championship passes the halfway marker.
Loeb trailed his team-mate Mikko Hirvonen on the opening day and it wasn't until the very final test on Friday that he moved in front, finishing the leg with a slender 4 second cushion.
On Saturday the duel between the two Citroen factory drivers continued and following the morning loop, Hirvonen had closed to within 1.7 seconds of the lead. However in the afternoon, Loeb struck back and ended the day 6.4 seconds ahead. At this point, with Petter Solberg a distant third, Citroen boss Yves Matton instructed both of his drivers' to hold position, and on the final day, they duly brought their DS3 WRC cars home, giving the French team another one-two.
Loeb now heads into the WRC's summer break with a 38-point lead over Hirvonen in the race for the 2012 drivers' title, while Citroen is 93 points up on Ford in the manufacturers' standings.
“It's a great victory! It was a long weekend with some very difficult conditions. The big, big fight with Mikko was not easy, but we are here now at the end of the rally,” Loeb said.
“This season is going very well. Again we do first and second here and that shows that the car is really strong and that it is good for the championship. The team is doing a perfect job and that is one of the keys of our success. I have a good feeling for the rest of the season.”
Hirvonen meanwhile, who was looking very good to win on Friday, was pleased to be back on the pace after struggling last time out on the Acropolis.
“It was a fantastic weekend; we had such a great fight for the first two days. It was really important to get the speed back again because in Greece I wasn't happy with my driving so now it is good again and right before Finland which is brilliant,” he confirmed.
Behind, Petter Solberg took the final place on the podium for Ford, although he was a long way back – more than 90 seconds off Loeb – after selecting the wrong tyres on Friday morning. That cost the Norwegian dear leaving him down in seventh after SS4. Although he managed to haul himself back up the leaderboard, he was unable to do anything about the two Citroens ahead.
“It has been a long and hard rally and I'm a little bit disappointed with what happened on the first day of the rally,” Solberg conceded. “It is hard for the team. We have a really good car, really big possibilities and then a little wrong tyre choice, but a podium is podium.”
Evgeny Novikov was next up and fourth for the M-Sport Ford team after another mature display from the Russian, which saw him run in P4 pretty much throughout.
“The roads were very fast today and the conditions have been very difficult, but our tyre choice has worked very well again so I am pleased with that. Even the smallest mistake can cause the car to roll in these sorts of conditions so we decided not to push today. Fourth place is a very good result for us and I have really enjoyed the stages all weekend,” he reflected.
Novikov's team-mate Ott Tanak looked poised to take fifth after a very solid display. However disaster struck in the final loop today, when he rolled his Fiesta RS WRC car six kilometres into SS20.
“Everything went well this morning. Thierry [Neuville] was going really well, but we set some good times and were able to keep him behind us. Unfortunately, I was caught out on a really fast section this afternoon and we went off the road,” he explained. “I was trying to push as we lost a lot of time to Thierry on that stage over the morning loop. He was on softs for the afternoon, and we were on hards, so I knew I had to try hard. Unfortunately, the New Zealand camber caught us out. Obviously I am very disappointed. Now I just need to concentrate on Finland where hopefully we can finish with a strong result.”
Thierry Neuville thus completed the top five in his Citroen DS3 WRC and he finished with a flourish, winning three stages during the final leg: "I think it was a very good weekend for us and only on the Friday we had some troubles. We could have been fourth at the end of the rally, now we are fifth, but anyway it is a good result for us,” he said. “We could set three fastest stage times today and that is very important for my career. The feeling with the car is getting better and better. I had good speed in New Zealand, but now I have to try to be fast on other rallies.”
Further back, Prodrive MINI man Dani Sordo took a respectable sixth in his John Cooper Works WRC car. He set two quickest times on the final day, but admitted he was still somewhat disappointed not to finish higher up.
“Today has been good. I had hoped the soft tyres would have been better in the rain, but still it was nice to win the two stages, particularly in front of all the MINI fans. I think we had all hoped this rally would have been a little better for us, but the car has been very good and now I am looking forward to having a much better fight on tarmac in Germany,” he stated.
Jari-Matti Latvala had to settle for seventh, after losing over four minutes on Friday afternoon when he went off the road in SS7. He took the Power Stage win, but was still bitterly disappointed not to have been challenging for the win.
“I haven't had the confidence all weekend,” he conceded, “especially Friday and then on Saturday it started to pick up and on Sunday it has been alright. I would have been able to finish on the podium without the off, but at least we are here [at the finish] and got the points.”
Of the rest, Armindo Araujo came in seventh, albeit more than 4 minutes back, while Monster WRT man Ken Block and Manfred Stohl completed the top ten, the latter taking in his first WRC event since 2007.
In the support categories, Hayden Paddon took the SWRC honours, while Marcos Ligato claimed the PWRC win.
The WRC now takes a bit of a break before resuming with Rally Finland, which runs from August 2-4.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally New Zealand - CLICK HERE