Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb won Rally Finland today as he edges ever closer to his ninth WRC drivers' title.
Loeb said he wasn't necessarily going to go for victory on the eighth round in the 2012 World Rally Championship, but he immediately laid down the marker on Wednesday, by setting the quickest time in qualifying.
He then took the lead in the very first stage, finishing the short opening leg with a 7.3 second cushion.
On Friday, Loeb maintained his position at the head of the pack, despite the ever constant threat from team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen. Loeb saw his advantage cut to 4.4 seconds after SS5 and while Mikko did get it down to 3 seconds after SS11, that was a close as he would ever get.
Indeed Loeb began the final day with a 5-second buffer and he pushed from the off, increasing his margin to 9.4 seconds ahead of the last loop and eventually taking the win, his third in Finland, by just over 6 seconds.
Seb now heads to Germany later this month with his margin over Hirvonen in the drivers' championship up to 43 points, while Citroen has further strengthened its hold on the manufacturers', with its fourth 1-2 in a row increasing the gap over Ford from 93 points to 109 points.
“It is always special to win in Finland. It is an incredible rally,” Loeb said. “I am very satisfied. I didn't come especially to win. I know it is difficult to take victory here – and it was difficult. I had a great fight with Mikko.”
Hirvonen meanwhile had to be content with second again, and while he never quite got on terms with his team-mate, he certainly made him work for the victory. Mikko also had the pleasure of winning the Power Stage and setting a new record for the best time through the legendary Ouninpohja test.
“It is silver again. It was an excellent performance from me, but it just isn't enough against Loeb. He's a tough guy,” Hirvonen stated.
Behind, Jari-Matti Latvala completed the podium, although the Ford man was disappointed not to be able to challenge the Citroens, eventually finishing 28.9 seconds off P2 and 35 seconds off Loeb: “I was hoping for more, but we just couldn't get more,” Latvala said. “At beginning I wasn't at my best, but in the end we weren't quick enough.”
Petter Solberg was also unable to challenge in the other works Ford Fiesta RS WRC car and he was fourth, 21.1 seconds further adrift.
Mads Ostberg took another very respectable fifth in his Adapta WRT-run Fiesta RS WRC, despite a propshaft problem in SS16, which cost him over 40 seconds and initially cost him a place on the leaderboard.
“It has been difficult to keep the speed. It seems the Ford factory guys have had a bit more to play with but I've been quite close to them,” Ostberg commented. “It has been a good experience.”
Ott Tanak brought it home in sixth, unable to stay ahead of Ostberg on the final loop, while Matti Rantanen and Jari Ketomas were seventh and eighth respectively, the latter dogged by a misfire for much of the event and also losing time with a front left puncture in SS15.
Martin Prokop was ninth, only 2.4 seconds off Ketomaa, giving Ford seven of the places inside the top ten, while Volkswagen Motorsport man Sebastien Ogier claimed tenth and the final drivers' point in his Skoda Fabia S2000.
In the support categories, P-G Andersson claimed the SWRC win – and also eleventh place overall. P-G finished over 3 minutes up on Yazeed Al-Rajhi, while Juha Salo was third. In the WRC Academy, Elfyn Evans dominated and led from start-to-finish, with Pontus Tidemand second, 55.3 seconds back, and Brendan Reeves third.
As for retirements, Ken Block was probably the biggest casualty, going off the road in SS14. He had been set to score a point. Thierry Neuville and Chris Atkinson also looked set to finish well, but went out on Friday. Both finished, thanks to the Rally 2 rules, albeit way down the order and outside of the top-20.
The WRC now heads to Germany in a few weeks time, with that event running from August 24-26.
To view the result for the 2012 Rally Finland - CLICK HERE