Australia - day 3: Loeb ends win drought
6 September 2009
Multiple World Rally champion, Sebastien Loeb took his first victory in over four months today, when he triumphed on the all-new Rally Australia, the tenth round in the 2009 World Rally Championship.
Loeb finished the opening day in third place, behind early leader Jari-Matti Latvala and fellow countryman, Sebastien Ogier.
On Saturday though, he quickly moved up to second, before grabbing the top spot in the afternoon. The Frenchman then pulled further ahead in SS22 and built an 11.1 second cushion, before purposely easing off in the next test to ensure he wouldn't have to run first on the road on Sunday and sweep away the loose gravel.
Going into the final day - the longest of the event - just 0.1 seconds separated the top three, with Dani Sordo fractionally in front of both Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen, who finished Saturday's action tied for second.
Loeb powered his Citroen into P1 straight away this morning however, and he then eased ahead eventually taking the victory by 12.5 seconds.
It was sixth win of the season, but more significantly his first maximum points haul since the Rally Argentina at the end of April. He will now go to the Rally de Espana next month, trailing Hirvonen by just 1 point in the race for the 2009 WRC drivers' crown.
"I am really happy," Loeb reflected. "It has been a long time and it is really good to win again. I know some people think I'm not good at new rallies, but I don't know why.
"This rally turned out to be long and tough. The variety of the stages and the speed of our rivals kept us on our toes from start to finish. This result is particularly important in terms of the championship. It has brought us back to within just one point of Mikko and we will be looking to regain the lead in Spain."
Hirvonen meanwhile wasn't too disappointed with second, especially as he had to play the 'road sweeper' on day one and day three. Indeed despite coming under pressure from Dani Sordo today, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi #1 made sure he took the runners-up spot by setting the pace in the final test.
"It was a tough weekend, but one hell of a fight for victory," Hirvonen reflected. "I drove flat out from start to finish and the key factor in the final result was when I had to run first in the start order today. I felt trapped by that and if Loeb had been in that position rather than me, then the outcome could have been different.
"I wanted to outscore him here but the championship is still wide open with just two rounds remaining in Spain and Britain."
Sordo eventually finished just 4.6 seconds off Hirvonen and only 17.1 seconds off P1. Despite having to settle for 'bronze', the Spaniard was happy with his performance.
"Mikko was quite simply faster than me today. That said, I am absolutely thrilled to have finished on the podium here,” Sordo stated. “I was in the thick of the scrap for first place from the beginning of day 1 all the way to the end, and the Manufacturers' points we've scored mean that Citroën could potentially wrap up the title in Spain."
Next up was Sebastien Ogier and the Citroen Junior driver put in an impressive performance, winning eight stages in total, just one less than Loeb, and the same as BP Ford Abu Dhabi's #2 Jari-Matti Latvala. Ogier's only real problem came on day 2 when he hit a bank.
“It was a very good weekend for us,” he said. “Apart from a small mistake yesterday, we were able to fight with the best of them. The C4 WRC was extremely competitive on this event and the Citroën Junior Team did an excellent job. I'm delighted to be able to deliver the team a result like this.”
Further down the order, Latvala had to settle for fifth, 30 seconds off Ogier and around 2 minutes off the winner. He lost time running first on the road on Saturday and also lost more ground with two punctures, one in SS23 and another in SS27, both the result of hitting a bank in his Ford Focus.
"I made a fantastic start on Friday but the rally turned round on me on Saturday afternoon and today,” Latvala explained. “Two mistakes that caused the tyre to come off the rim on each occasion cost me dearly, but who knows what may have happened without those errors?”
Of the rest Stobart Ford's Matthew Wilson rounded out the top six, eventually finishing more than 2 minutes up on his team-mate, Henning Solberg.
Solberg lost ground with an off on day 2, when he went into a ditch and smashed his windscreen. He was further hampered by a spin and brake problems on Sunday, but while this did drop him to eighth in SS33, and behind Federico Villagra, he fought back and re-took P7 in the final test.
"I was very unlucky today,” Henning stated. “We had lots of problems and it was a long day. We are here though, and I'm happy to finish, I'm just not happy with my performance this weekend."
After Villagra, Hayden Paddon and Martin Prokop came in ninth and tenth, the former securing the Group N victory, while the latter took the glory in the Production Car World Rally Championship category.
Following his success in Finland last month, when he took the J-WRC title, Prokop was in a confident mood and despite losing time on Friday, when he hit a rock and dropped down to fifth, he battled back. He eventually ended the event 42.2 seconds up on Richard Mason, while Cody Crocker took third.
Armindo Araujo was fourth in the P-WRC, inheriting the place late on when Toshi Arai retired with gearbox problems halfway through the final stage. Araujo now provisionally takes the 2009 P-WRC title, subject to the outcome of an appeal lodged by the Barwa Rally Team against Nasser Al-Attiyah's exclusion from the results of the Acropolis Rally of Greece.
Stewart Taylor and Gianluca Linari were the only other P-WRC runners to be classified, coming home in fifth and sixth.
In terms of retirements, Conrad Rautenbach and Khalid Al Qassimi both had issues and had to SupeRally. Al Qassimi was eventually classified in 19th having had to stop on Friday when he hit a rock and broke his steering in SS7. Rautenbach crashed out on day two and while he did re-join the fold today and completed the last stage in 17th, he was unable to make it back to the final service after damaging the radiator on his Citroen C4 WRC in SS34.
The World Rally Championship now returns to Europe next month for the penultimate round in the 2009 series. The Rally de Espana, which runs from October 1-4, is an all-asphalt affair and it will be the first tarmac rally since the season opening, Rally Ireland, which took place back in February.