Ireland - day 3: Loeb heads home Citroen 1-2
1 January 1901
Citroen number one driver Sebastien Loeb has taken a convincing victory on the rain-affected Rally Ireland, although he did experience a couple of scares en-route, including one in the penultimate stage.
Loeb, who took the lead in SS4 on Friday, was the class of the field, as has become norm.
However, it wasn't an easy event for the Frenchman or any of his rivals for that matter as torrential rain, especially on days 1 and 2, made the tight and twisty Irish tests extra challenging. Indeed conditions were so bad organisers had to cancel the two night stages on Friday, due to severe flooding and concerns over safety.
While Seb got off to a bit of a slow start and was only seventh fastest in the first test on Friday, having opted for Pirelli's standard slick tyre, he was back on it in SS2 and SS3, first hauling himself up to second and then cutting the gap to then leader, Urmo Aava, from 22 seconds to just 6.7.
Following the mid-day service in Sligo, the five-time world champion continued to charge in his C4 WRC and now on the winter/snow tyres, he grabbed the lead straight off on the re-run through Glenboy 2.
He then stretched his cushion in SS5 and SS6 to end the first leg with a 44.4 second lead.
Saturday was again difficult, but Loeb further consolidated his advantage and he won all three stages in the morning, to stretch his overall advantage to well over a minute.
While he had a scare in the afternoon and had an off in SS12, costing him 12 seconds, he was back on it in SS13 and SS14, setting another two quickest stage times and like on Friday, he concluded the day having won 5 from 6.
Sunday saw the rain replaced by bright sunshine and a cold wind, but it was still no cruise to the finish and Loeb had another scare in the penultimate stage. He survived that though, and took the victory by almost 1.5 minutes to get the new season off to the perfect start.
Dani Sordo meanwhile secured the runners-up spot in the sister Citroen Total WRT-run C4 WRC. He moved up into second in SS5 on Friday and after that was never really threatened.
Mikko Hirvonen took the final spot on the podium, unable to challenge for P2 after power steering problems cost him considerable time in SS10 and SS11. The Finn then opted to settle for the 6 points and finished around 40 seconds adrift, although four stages win from five on the final day showed what might have been.
Behind Hirvonen, Henning Solberg and Chris Atkinson enjoyed a good squabble for fourth. Henning looked to have lost the place this morning when Atkinson pulled in front and inched away.
The Aussie made a mistake in SS18 though and lost around a minute, when he went off the road in his Citroen Junior Team-run C4 WRC. That handed the position back to Henning, who was delighted with the result and declared that this was probably one of his best ever rallies.
2008 Junior World Rally champion, Sebastien Ogier rounded out the top six, albeit over 3.5 minutes off the battle for P4. Ogier struggled a bit on the first loop on Friday and then lost around 2 minutes on the first stage on Saturday, when he went off the road in his C4 WRC. Apart from that though the Frenchman was again impressive posting twelve top-eight times, including two fourths.
Britain's Matthew Wilson was next up and 30 seconds off Ogier, while Khalid Al-Qassimi took eighth and the final point - his first at this level - in the 'third' BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Focus RS WRC08.
Further down the order current Irish Tarmac Rally champion, Eamonn Boland was ninth, the top local star, followed by Urmo Aava.
Aava led early on and looked set for a good result on his debut with the Stobart Ford team until a mistake in SS6 when he went off the road. He re-started on day two and hauled himself up from 18th to tenth.
Fellow Ford runner, Jari-Matti Latvala and Conrad Rautenbach also had problems and utilised the SupeRally rule to finish, coming home 14th and 18th respectively. Jari-Matti made a great start and took the lead in SS1, before going off in SS2. Rautenbach also went off, but on day two, in SS9. He had been in fifth.
Of the rest Aaron MacHale, Tim McNulty and Shaun Gallagher came in 11th, 12th and 13th, the latter taking the Group N win, while Gary Jennings was 15th, 40 seconds behind Latvala, followed by Aaron Burkart.
Burkart, who has switched to using a Suzuki Swift S1600 this year, finished 47 seconds up on Martin Prokop to claim his maiden win in the Junior World Rally Championshp. The German had been engaged in a close battle with Hans Weijs Jr. But Hans crashed out in the final stage on Saturday and hit a tree.
Other permanent retirees included Gareth MacHale, who had been in the points, until mechanical problems slowed him late on day two.
Niall McShea also shone in the new Proton Satria S2000 and was third fastest in the opening test. He was forced out by electrical problems after SS2 however, and while he rejoined the fold on Saturday, he went out again in SS14, when he crashed.
The World Rally Championship now moves to Norway later this month for the only true winter rally of the season. The event runs from February 12-15 and is based in Hamar with speed tests held on snow and ice.