Sébastien Loeb has reflected that his outstanding sixth straight World Rally Championship drivers' crown – clinched by expertly triumphing on the Rally of Great Britain at the weekend – is his 'best' yet, because Ford rival Mikko Hirvonen really made him work for it right up until the bitter end.
Bidding to extend his already record-breaking run of five consecutive titles heading to Wales, Loeb trailed Hirvonen by just a single marker arriving in Cardiff – setting the scene for a thrilling no-holds barred, winner-takes-all contest, which the Citroën Total World Rally Team star would lead from start-to-finish.
However, as the trophy neared, so the pressure and the tension mounted. The third day of the event might have been shorter than the first two, but it still provided a real challenge as the competitors had to complete two runs through the Port Talbot and Rheola stages, which equated to nearly 80km without any breaks for service.
Knowing they couldn't afford to relax even for a moment, Loeb and Monégasque co-driver Daniel Elena lost eight tenths to Hirvonen in Port Talbot 1 (SS13) following a slight turbocharger issue, and a recurrence of the problem in SS14 (Rheola 1) cost the Frenchman a full eleven seconds – “our problem is quite a big handicap in the twistier sections,” he admitted – and reduced his half-minute advantage over his title duellist to just 18 seconds.
However, the rally took a definitive swing in SS15, when Hirvonen conceded more than a minute after having to stop to close his bonnet, and a controlled performance in the final stage – as the entire Citroën team nervously held its collective breath – earned an emotional Loeb and Elena their 54th world-class victory...and with it the ultimate spoils.
“There was so much pressure right up to the end of the rally,” affirmed the Alsacien, literally besieged by a swarm of microphones immediately after stepping from his car. “We had a good start to the year, but then encountered a few problems. However, we got back on top of things just before this rally. Finally, we've managed to win the title again, on the penultimate stage.
“There was no room for error, Mikko didn't give up and I had to push right to the finish. Despite the very tough conditions, the car and the tyres performed perfectly, allowing me to take the fight all the way to the finish. I'm absolutely delighted to win this world title, which is one of the most rewarding of my career as we had to fight so hard for it.
“It's never easy to compare one title with another, but I think this is the best one in terms of the sporting battle we had. When you win a title with three rallies to go, the pressure isn't the same because you've always got another opportunity to do it. This was the final rally and we couldn't afford to get it wrong. Everybody expected us to win, but I can tell you that nothing was certain until we reached the finish. That's why it means so much to us.”
“Three weeks after winning the manufacturers' title, we've rounded off this extraordinary season with the drivers' title too,” enthused Frédéric Banzet, director of Automobiles Citroën. “We'd got it back to five titles each, but now Seb's slipped ahead again with his sixth! We're pleased to have the best team, and best driver and co-driver, in the WRC. Rallying fits perfectly with Citroën's strategy; it's an integral part of the brand's DNA. Motorsport is important, particularly when you win…and that's what we've achieved again this year.”
Loeb's team-mate Dani Sordo, meanwhile, came agonisingly to within a second of claiming the runner-up laurels at the close, as the Spaniard and co-driver Marc Marti pushed right to the end, having lost time earlier on during the final day after swiping a big rock with the right rear of their C4 on SS14.
“When we got to within nine tenths of Mikko in the penultimate stage, we told ourselves we had to give it a go and we pushed to the limit,” acknowledged the 26-year-old, who similarly sealed third place in the final drivers' standings for the year. “We believed we could do it, but he managed to hold out. I'm satisfied with a third-place finish in the championship, and that I made a real contribution to Citroën's success. We've had another very good season.”