It is as you were at the end of the second full day of the 2010 Rallye de France, with Sébastien Loeb holding a near-identical lead to that which he had at the midday service, and following the retirement of only remaining title rival and namesake Sébastien Ogier from third place, all the home hero now needs to do is finish sixth or better on Sunday and an incredible seventh straight world championship crown will be his.
Two fastest stage times during the morning – one of them on the first run through the 35km Pays d'Ormont section, almost 20 seconds out-of-reach of any
of his adversaries – helped to cement Loeb's dominant position in front of his throngs of adoring supporters. Littered by stray mud and debris, the stages remained damp and tricky all day long, but the 36-year-old Alsacien's peerless consistency means he will enter the final day with a 42.8-second advantage over Citroën World Rally Team team-mate Dani Sordo.
“It's been another good but difficult day,” the Frenchman told the official WRC website. “We've managed to set some good times and now have a good lead, although there is still a long way to go. It was an advantage being first on the road, although it still wasn't easy.”
Loeb's title triumph has been all-but sealed by Ogier's suspension failure on SS14, Ungersberg 2. The 26-year-old had endeavoured to repair his car sufficiently to be able to limp through to the overnight service stop, but the top mount subsequently broke through the bonnet of his Citroën Junior Team C4 WRC on the following Pays d'Ormont 2 marathon, forcing him out of contention – although he plans to re-start under SupeRally regulations on Sunday.
Ogier's ill-fortune might have dealt a blow to Citroën's hopes of a podium lock-out, but with Petter Solberg moving into third behind Dani Sordo, there are still three of the French manufacturer's cars inside the top three positions, albeit no longer all factory-backed entries. The 2003 World Rally Champion professed himself happier with the handling of his car following the fitting of a new differential – and the quickest time on both SS15 and SS16 at the end of the day means the Norwegian now holds a 20-second safety buffer over the pursuing Jari-Matti Latvala.
Having paced the final morning stage, Latvala lost time with a spin and stall not far into the same stage in the afternoon, but he nonetheless remains well clear of BP Ford Abu Dhabi team-mate and countryman Mikko Hirvonen, who belatedly appeared to discover some semblance of form with the second-fastest time on SS16 – albeit too late now to mount a realistic challenge on his fellow Finn at almost two minutes further adrift.
Ogier remains classified sixth, ahead of Federico Villagra and the fast-closing Matthew Wilson, just 2.9 seconds back. The latter's Stobart team-mate Henning Solberg sits ninth in a Ford Fiesta S2000, with Super 2000 class leader Patrik Sandell rounding out the top ten.
Having lost over half an hour with a low-speed excursion into a ditch at a slippery corner earlier on, former F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen was pulled back onto the road by a group of spectators, only to go off again in SS15, leaving his Citroën C4 WRC beached less than ten kilometres into the stage and causing the Finn to finally admit defeat.
After running inside the top ten the previous day, meanwhile, Monster-backed Ken Block was handed a 1m40s time penalty for leaving Saturday's first service late, due to his mechanics needing to hurriedly replace the hydraulic actuator on the American's Ford Focus WRC.
In S2000, Sandell has leapfrogged long-time erstwhile leader Eyvind Brynildsen for the top spot – with just 14 seconds separating the pair – whilst in JWRC, there has similarly been a switch-around, with Jeremy Ancian moving to the top of the timesheets, some 1m41.3s ahead of Hans Weijs Jnr. Thierry Neuville continues to run third. Armindo Araujo is still in front in the Production category, as the following Ott Tanak and Anders Grondal swapped places.
Rallye de France: Overall standings after Stage 16 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC 2hrs 46mins 39.2secs
2. Dani Sordo
Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC +00mins 42.8secs
3. Petter Solberg
PSWRT Citroen C4 WRC +01mins 14.2secs
4. Jari-Matti Latvala
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC +01mins 34.2secs
5. Mikko Hirvonen
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC +03mins 23.5secs
6. Sebastien Ogier
Citroen Junior Team C4 WRC +11mins 14.1secs
7. Federico Villagra
Munchi's Ford Focus WRC +13mins 27.0secs
8. Matthew Wilson
Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus WRC +13mins 29.9secs
9. Henning Solberg
Stobart M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 +14mins 57.8secs
10. Patrik Sandell
Skoda Fabia S2000 +15mins 38.4secs
SWRC Standings after Stage 16 (Top 3):
1. Patrik Sandell
Skoda Fabia S2000 3hrs 02mins 17.6secs
2. Eyvind Brynildsen
Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 14.0secs
3. Jari Ketomaa
Ford Fiesta S2000 +01mins 50.9secs
JWRC Standings after Stage 16 (Top 3):
1. Jeremy Ancian
Suzuki Swift S1600 3hrs 11mins 45.6secs
2. Hans Weijs Jnr
Citroen C2 S1600 +01mins 41.3secs
3. Thierry Neuville
Citroen C2 S1600 + 03mins 04.0secs
PWRC Standings after Stage 16 (Top 3):
1. Armindo Araujo
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 3hrs 06mins 48.3secs
2. Ott Tanak
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +02mins 24.6secs
3. Anders Grondal
Subaru Impreza STi +03mins 36.1secs
all times unofficial