Citroen Total World Rally Team man Sebastien Loeb bounced back this weekend on Rally Mexico, winning the Leon-based event, the second round in the 2011 World Rally Championship, for the fifth year in succession.
Loeb, who had had to settle for sixth in Sweden last month, ran at the head of the pack on and off throughout the event, trading fastest times with his team-mate, Sebastien Ogier. On Saturday he moved in front on the morning loop, only to slip back in the afternoon when he picked up a 50-second time penalty after a gearbox issue delayed him at the start of SS15.
Despite that though, the Frenchman still ended the leg only 10.5 seconds off P1 and with Ogier first on the road looked well placed to seize the initiative on the final day.
However, sadly there was no final day fight to the finish, after Ogier went off in the opening test while pushing to maintain his hold on the lead. Ogier's exit left Loeb comfortably out front and the seven-time WRC champion was able to ease off, although he still set the joint second best time in event closing Power Stage. The result was a good one for Loeb, although he was sad to see Ogier retire, especially as it means Citroen lose more ground to Ford in the manufacturers' race.
“That was a very hard weekend,” Loeb said at the finish. “It was terrible for Ogier. We have done a nearly perfect weekend though and I am happy with the new car. It is very fast.”
Meanwhile, Hirvonen, in addition to winning the Power Stage, also took the runners-up spot a result that extends his lead slightly at the top of the 2011 WRC drivers' championship. The Finn lost time on the opening leg running first on the road and while he was disappointed not to be closer to the pace on Saturday, he was still happy at the end, especially after getting those three bonus points.
“It has been a great start [to 2011 for me],” said the Finn, who won round one in Sweden and who eventually finished 1 minute 38.4 seconds off the winner. “It has been a funny rally. I couldn't really match the speed of the Citroen's, but now suddenly I am second.”
Jari-Matti Latvala took the final podium place and after two punctures – one of which cost him over two minutes – he was also pretty happy: “Basically it feels good,” he noted. “We are on the podium the first time on gravel and that is despite losing so much time earlier in the event.”
Behind, Petter Solberg put in a fantastic recovery drive to claim fourth place. He had been running third on the opening day before mechanical issues saw him lose seven minutes in SS6 and plummet down the leaderboard to 13th. He fought back though, despite more dramas on day two: “It has been good, really enjoyable,” said 'Hollywood'. “This morning I drove slowly to look after the tyres. I was aiming for fifth [after my problems on day one] and so to take fourth now is unbelievable.”
Mads Ostberg was another to survive and after a puncture on SS3, which left him down in 17th, he kept plugging away and at the end achieved his pre-event target of finishing in the top five: “I am so happy to be here at the end,” said the Norwegian. “We have been quite clever and not done anything stupid. The slow puncture on the first leg destroyed the result but we have finished with something better than we could have hoped for on Friday.”
Henning Solberg was equally relieved to get to the end and he was sixth in the other M-Sport Stobart Ford car nominated to score manufacturers' points: “This is great,” he reflected. “Before the last stage I had to change the power steering belt. I never had such a hard rally - six stages without power steering [on Saturday]. My fingers are not very nice. It hurt!”
Further back, Nasser Al-Attiyah took seventh place and the SWRC class win, having led the category from start-to-finish. He eventually finished 13.5 seconds up on Martin Prokop, with Juho Hanninen third: “This is fantastic,” said Al-Attiyah. “It was a very hard week. We have competed here many times, but it is a good start for us [to win the first round of the SWRC]. We won the Dakar and then the Qatar Rally and the rally in Saudi. I hope to keep it going now. It has been a fantastic year for us so far.”
Federico Villagra rounded out the top ten, taking advantage of the SupeRally to claim the final drivers' point after he went out in SS2 on Friday. Ken Block had been set to take tenth following an extremely trying event, but more drama in the penultimate stage dropped the American down to 13th overall.
“It was the same electrical trouble,” Block revealed. “We were parked there for a while and I thought, 'what the heck, let's try and start it up again' and it started! We then got to the re-group, had 30 seconds before the start of the Power Stage. It was a lot of fun.”
In terms of retirements, as mentioned previously, Ogier was the biggest scalp, crashing out of the lead in SS20 and leaving some to question whether or not Citroen were right to let their two men slug it out. Dennis Kuipers also crashed out, albeit at the start of day two, while mechanical issues stopped Britain's Matt Wilson – who had been up in fourth - and WRC returnee, Evgeny Novikov. In total of the 25 starters, 18 were classified at the finish.
The 2011 FIA WRC now heads to Portugal in three weeks time, with round three running from March 24-27. STOP PRESS:
To see the result following today's WRC Rally Mexico - CLICK HERE.
To view the latest championship standings - CLICK HERE.