Citroen's Sebastien Loeb concluded his full-time WRC career with victory on Rally de Espana this weekend.
The final round in the 2012 World Rally Championship got off to a dramatic start on Friday, with 11 of the 20 top starters caught out as heavy rain transformed the gravel stages into a muddy mess. Loeb survived though, and when day one leader, Mads Ostberg went off in the second test on Saturday and lost over a minute, he seized the advantage and was never headed.
Indeed he finished the second leg with a 27 second cushion and while he saw that cut to just 7 seconds at the finish, he held on to triumph.
It was Loeb's ninth win of the season and the 76th of his amazing career in the WRC, made all the more significant as next year he will step back and only do 3-5 events.
“I really wanted to win this rally,” Loeb admitted at the finish. “We struggled at the start because it was really tricky on the first day. On the tarmac I was able to take the lead but today was not easy because we had some strange tyre choices.”
Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile was 'best of the rest' at the finish for Ford on what was the Blue Oval's final official outing in the championship, and also the Finn's final event with the M-Sport-run outfit as he will drive for Volkswagen next season.
Latvala put in a charge over the final day, but despite storming through the final three stages – and taking the Power Stage win - he was unable to overhaul Loeb.
“I have had some fantastic years with Ford and I want thank to [Ford boss] Malcolm Wilson for being so supportive even though I've had many, many crashes,” said Latvala.
Mikko Hirvonen was next up and completed the rostrum, albeit 1 minute 46.8 seconds adrift of his former team-mate: “Overall it has been a good year. We have learned a lot and are ready for next season now. It is going to be exciting and everyone will be fighting like hell to win the title,” he remarked.
Behind, Ostberg was fourth, but that wasn't enough to keep him third in the WRC drivers' championship and ahead of Latvala: “I am very happy with my season, but unfortunately this weekend was not perfect,” conceded the Adapta Ford WRT man. “I need to do more work on tarmac.”
Jarkko Nikara completed the top-five after an impressive performance on his one-off outing with the Prodrive WRC team. The Finn lost time with a puncture in SS5 on Friday, but kept his head over the remainder of the event and gained two places on final day when Han Weijs and Ott Tanak both crashed out: “It was a difficult event. The stages were quite tricky and so were the conditions. But the team did a fantastic job,” he said.
Further back, Craig Breen had much to celebrate, as not only did he take sixth overall and the SWRC class win, but that was also sufficient to ensure he won the 2012 Super 2000 World Rally Championship - a brilliant result for the Irishman, especially given what happened back in June, when his former co-driver Gareth Roberts was killed on the IRC event in Sicily.
“This is incredible. I can't believe it,” Breen stated. “I often had questions about coming back [and continuing to compete]. But I think we were meant to win it. I am so, so happy. I want to thank everyone who has supported me. This is beyond my wildest dreams.”
WRC MINI Team Portugal man Chris Atkinson took seventh, ahead of Per-Gunnar Andersson and Dani Sordo. Sordo was one of a number of the top drivers that failed to make it through the opening leg, but despite technical problems on Saturday morning, he bounced back and won six of the final nine stages to haul his Prodrive WRC Team MINI John Cooper Works WRC car back up into the points.
Of the rest, Evgeny Novikov rounded out the top ten despite picking up a ten minute penalty this morning after it was discovered the tread on his tyres were below the 1.6mm limit following Saturday's final stage.
Petter Solberg, Thierry Neuville, Martin Prokop, Abdulaziz Alkuwari and Yazeed Al-Rajhi filled positions 11 through to 15.
In the support categories, as mentioned, Breen took the SWRC honours, while in the PWRC, Benito Guerra won, finishing more than 5 minutes up on Marcos Liagto. Victory also gave Guerra the 2012 PWRC title.
As for the Academy class, Jose Suarez took the honours, 1 minute 19.7 seconds ahead of Pontus Tidemand.
In terms of retirements, in addition to Weijs and Tanak, Sebastien Ogier was probably one of the other more notable names not to finish with mechanical issues sidelining him on day one en-route
The WRC now takes a break, before the 2013 season gets underway in January with Rallye Monte Carlo.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally de Espana - CLICK HERE