Citroen's Sebastien Loeb successfully came through the longest WRC encounter for almost ten years to claim his third win of the season today in Argentina.
Loeb, who was quickest in qualifying, made an uncharacteristic scrappy start and three spins on the opening loop on Friday left him down in fourth, 34.8 seconds off the lead. However the Frenchman fought back in the afternoon and eventually finished the day at the head of the leaderboard, albeit just 0.1 seconds up on his team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen.
Loeb and Hirvonen continued to fight it out on Saturday morning and despite a 'big moment' in SS9, Seb held on returning to service with a 2.1 second cushion. However with the gap to third now 1 minute 30 seconds, Citroen told its two drivers to hold position, thereby bringing to an end the battle. After that, Loeb and Hirvonen could pace themselves to the finish and despite today's final leg including a monster 65.74 km test – the longest of the event – there was no dramas, although Mikko did close the gap to just 0.2 seconds at one point.
In the end, Loeb won by 12.5 seconds, the seventh time in succession he has taken the spoils in Argentina. The win – the 70th of his WRC career – increases his lead in the drivers' championship from just 4 points to 18.
“Another victory here in Argentina it's incredible for me and especially after Portugal it was important for the team to react like this,” Loeb told the official WRC site. “It has been a great rally.”
Hirvonen meanwhile put in a fantastic drive and really pushed his team-mate up until he was ordered to hold station. It ended a great fight, but Citroen's decision was entirely understandable, given both were so far out front.
Behind, Dani Sordo, standing in for the injured Jari-Matti Latvala, came within a whisker of taking third. Heartbreakingly though, for the Spaniard and Ford, he was forced out at the start of the Power Stage with a suspected alternator failure. A bitter blow, although he could still take comfort from a very good drive and he was right on the pace on day one, before falling back on Saturday.
Sordo's woe, bumped Mads Ostberg up to third. Ostberg, who of course claimed his maiden win last time out in Portugal (after Hirvonen was disqualified), was in the top-six throughout. He moved up to P4 on Friday afternoon and then ran in that position until Dani's drama at the end.
Martin Prokop was next up in his DMACK-tyres shod Ford Fiesta RS WRC, his best-ever finish, and he conceded the result was more than he had expected.
Citroen Junior WRT's Thierry Neuville rounded out the top-five. He had been on course for fourth, until he rolled in SS5 on Friday. The Frenchman rejoined under Rally 2 though and fought his way back up from tenth.
Petter Solberg was another Rally 2 runner. The Norwegian led early on and had a 20 second cushion going into SS4. However he was forced out in that test when an impact with a rock damaged a steering arm. He dropped to eleventh, but recovered to sixth, overhauling Sebastian Ogier in the penultimate test. 'Hollywood' also won the Power Stage, 1.1 seconds up on Hirvonen. In total he set eleven quickest times, including taking a clean sweep on the final day, but ultimately it was still an opportunity missed.
Ogier trailed Solberg by 23.1 seconds at the finish. He enjoyed a good battle with fellow Volkswagen Motorsport man, Andreas Mikkelsen throughout the three-days and both ran well in their Skoda Fabia S2000s. Mikkelsen unfortunately though, had to retire today in SS15 with suspension damage.
Further back, Evgeny Novikov was another Rally 2 runner, after going out in SS3 on day one when he lost a wheel. The Russian finished more than 8.5 minutes off P7.
Nasser Al-Attiyah and Ott Tanak rounded out the points' scorers, the former losing a wheel at the end of SS9, but rejoining today to claim two points. Tanak also had a turbulent event, but found himself promoted to the top ten when Mikkelsen and Sordo ran into problems on the final day.
Of the rest, Benito Guerra took the PWRC honours and eleventh place overall, 4 minutes 19.1 seconds up on Nicolas Fuchs, his nearest class rival in 13th. Former F1 racer Eliseo Salazar was sandwiched between them in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC car, a good effort from the 60-year-old.
In terms of retirements, in addition to Sordo and Mikkelsen, Rally Argentina also claimed the scalps of a number of other runners, including both WRC MINI Team Portugal runners, Paulo Nobre and Armindo Araujo, who went out in SS17. Araujo had been set to finish in the top-ten. Daniel Oliveira also failed to finish, sidelined by engine problems after SS12.
The WRC now heads to Greece next for the Acropolis Rally, which runs from May 25-27.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally Argentina - CLICK HERE