Anyone hoping that a month off active duty in WRC might take the edge of Sebastien Ogier's blistering 2013 race performance will just have to think again, after the Volkswagen Motorsport Polo calmly eased his way to a convincing win in the Neste Oil Rally Finland on Saturday.
"This weekend is just perfect," said Ogier afterwards. "A lot of points for the championship and the win. The key is to have the best approach and to back off a little bit to protect the tyres and the car."
It was Ogier's first win in Finland, but was also his fifth success in 2013 and his 12th win in WRC in total, and it extends his lead in the championship standings over his team mate Jari-Matti Latvala to almost obscene proportions.
Unlike the previous round in Sardinia, Ogier did not dominate the event from the start, but rather played a cooler long game of it. Over the course of the first half of the event he was able to watch his rivals stumble and fall, while Ogier himself simply kept going in an almost serene procession to inevitable success.
Ogier had lost out in qualifying which instead had seen Citroen's Mikko Hirvonen claimed the top spot on Wednesday. Hirvonen had predictably elected to run last and allow others to 'sweep the road' on the first day of action that followed, but even so it was Ogier who went into an immediate lead in the first short run through Himos on Thursday, with his Volkswagen team mate Jari-Matti Latvala immediately taking up second spot.
Latvala came undone in the very next stage, however, when he suffered suspension damage after hitting a rock that forced him out of the running for the rest of the day. That was much to the annoyance of the Finn's boss, Volkswagen Motorsport Director Jost Capito, who described the incident as "a frustrating mistake, which should not have happened." Latvala restarted on Friday under Rally 2 and battled his way to 17th place by the finish.
During this phase Hirvonen had briefly been propelled into the lead ahead of Qatar M-Sport's Mads Ostberg and Qatar WRT's Thierry Neuville, but then strong runs through Koukunmaa put Neuville into the lead in a dead tie with Ogier. The Belgian continued to lead for the rest of the day, and it wasn't until the first run through Jukojarvi on Friday morning that Ostberg was finally able to poke his nose out in front coming out of SS7 as the duo vied with Ogier for control of the event.
As Friday wore on, Neuville suffered a puncture which dropped him back from the lead, while Ostberg also suffered a major setback in the afternoon when he suffered a deflated left front tyre as a result of a broken rim on SS14. That set them both back on the road, with Ogier happy to be handed a comfortable 30 second margin at the front which he proceeded to nurse from there to the end of the rally. As he calmly cruised to the win, Ogier only really let himself go when it came to the two exhilarating Ouninpohja stages on Saturday, and he indulged himself by setting a new stage record of 15m 8.9s in the afternoon run.
While Ogier was walking away with the race, the two Ford drivers were left providing much of the fun and excitement as they scraped over second place throughout the final day. The pair alternated positions with almost every stage as it was clear that there were no team orders holding them back as the two remained neck and neck into the afternoon session. Unfortunately Ostberg's bid for second spot was finally undone by the penultimate stage, the second run through Ouninpohja, which saw the Norwegian go briefly off-road in order to miss hitting a rock, losing almost 20 seconds to Neuville in the process.
With their performances otherwise so evenly matched and only the 7.49km Painaa power stage remaining - which was won by Neuville ahead of Ogier and Latvala - there was no chance for Ostberg to recover from that setback and he had to be satisfied with third place on the podium.
"It's been a very good weekend," insisted Ostberg. "It's been nice to fight for a rally without anything happening which has completely destroyed everything. We have been leading, we have been second and we finished third. It's nice to build the confidence back up again as I have been low after the first part of the season. It's great to get this. It's been really good. I'm very happy with that, fantastic."
Behind this battle, the times had spread out to such an extent that there was little movement in the overall standings for most of Saturday. Having been relegated to fourth place early in the rally, Mikko Hirvonen dutifully brought his Citroen home in the points in that position, having lost touch with the leaders in stormy conditions on Thursday. His biggest scare of the weekend had been on SS12, when he hit a bank and came perilously close to rolling. Otherwise the rest of his rally had been fairly uneventful, and he finished comfortably ahead of his Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT team mate Dani Sordo whose pace had waned as the weather dried up into the weekend but which was still sufficient to to hold off Qatar M-Sport's Evgeny Novikov.
Novikov had suffered a mishap on Friday morning that saw him run into a pile of logs during the first run through Palsankyla; the Russian had also been cited by race stewards for pulling back onto the road ahead of Britain's Kris Meeke and impeding the Citroen driver for the remainder of the stage. Meeke himself had looked on course for fifth place in Finland, only to crash out in the final run through Ouninpohja on Saturday afternoon shortly after Jarkko Nikara had also been forced to pull out between stages after suffering a broken right-hand front damper on his John Cooper Works MINI.
That left the leading WRC2 driver Jari Ketomaa in the Ford Fiesta R5 in seventh place, just ahead of Ford's Per-Gunnar Andersson who fought back from differential problems on day 2. That meant Citroen DS3 RRC driver Robert Kubica finished in second place in WRC2 and in ninth place overall, ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen who had lost a wheel on the Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo at the end of day 2 in another case of the infamous Finnish ruts baring their teeth on the unsuspecting and unwary.
Despite a Saturday morning scare with a loose connection in his Citroen's engine, Keith Cronin clinched the WRC3 battle by over a minute from Sebastien Chardonnet, with Jussi Vainionpaa a further 40 seconds back in third place. The JWRC victory was taken by Andreas Amberg, who had more than two and a half minutes in hand over Sander Parn and Pontus Tidemand.
As an outcome of the eighth round of the 2013 WRC calendar, Ogier's lead in the WRC standings is now almost double that of his nearest competition: the Frenchman has 181 points coming out of this weekend's race, with team mate Latvala on 91 points level with Neuville. Mikko Hirvonen is a further 18pts back from this tie, putting him at the head of a closely-packed train of drivers that includes Dani Sordo, the now-inactive Sebastien Loeb, and Mads Ostberg.
Ogier's domination of the season so far means that in the WRC manufacturer standings, Volkswagen has 251 points putting them comfortably clear of the Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team in second with 196 points, themselves still over 80 points clear of the two Qatar M-Sport/WRT Ford teams.See full results from Rally Finland
.See championship standings