Citroen's Dani Sordo finally broke his duck and won his first WRC event on Rallye Deutschland this weekend, but the Spaniard was made to work for it and was pushed all the way by Thierry Neuville.
Sordo had a point to prove in Germany, the ninth round in the 2013 World Rally Championship, after a frustrating outing in Finland and after being dropped by Citroen for Rally Australia – and prove it he did.
Although the Spaniard had claimed over 30 'senior' WRC podiums prior to this weekend, he had never got to step on the top of the rostrum, and initially it looked like he would again struggle to do so.
Indeed runaway championship leader Sebastien Ogier was strongest on Thursday evening, winning both tests in his Volkswagen Polo R WRC to take the early lead. The Frenchman, who came into the event with an outside chance of securing the 2013 WRC Drivers' title, then went off, however, on Friday morning and had to retire. Ogier eventually finished 17th overall under the Rally 2 regulations, claiming three bonus points for winning the event ending Power Stage.
After Ogier's demise, Jari-Matti Latvala took over at the top of the leaderboard with Neuville breathing down his neck. Neuville won the first four stages on Friday and got to within 2 seconds of his Finnish rival, before Latvala responded and ended day two with a 7.3 second cushion.
Saturday saw Latvala continue to pull ahead and despite a scare in SS11, when he hit a hinkelstein – a concrete block – the VW #2 doubled his advantage.
Then came the repeat loop, and with the heavens opening, the event was turned on its head. Latvala and Neuville both had problems in SS12. Latvala went out after hitting a pile of logs, but Neuville also had problems - and at the same corner as Jari-Matti went off and damaged his exhaust. The Belgian could continue, and briefly held the lead, before dropping behind Sordo in SS13, what turned out to be the final test of the leg as SS14 was cancelled due to a tragic fatal accident
involving a historic car participating in a 'non-competitive demonstration programme'.
The last day was set up for a thrilling duel between Sordo and Neuville and with just 0.8 seconds between them, the battle went down to the very last stage. Sordo had gained 2.2 seconds in SS15, but with 3 seconds splitting them, there was still everything to play for ahead of SS16, the repeat-run through Dhrontal. It was nip and tuck throughout, but Sordo eventually emerged victorious, with Neuville going off just before the end.
Sordo thus claimed the win by 53 seconds, just the result he needed at a time when questions were - and are - being asked about his future.
“It's a great moment for me,” Sordo told the official WRC site. “Thierry was pushing so hard [in that last test]. He was a little slower than me at first but then he was faster so I needed to push harder. I was so nervous at the start but this win is something I've dreamed of for many years.”
Neuville meanwhile wasn't too disappointed to have to settle for second, his fourth podium in succession and a result that put him second outright in the Drivers' Championship.
“I feel we proved a lot again, even if we did ultimately just miss out on the win,” said the Qatar World Rally Team driver. “I decided we were going to go for it on the final stage, but coming out of the forest, I mistook one fast left-hand corner in the vineyards for another and we went off. By the time Nico [Gilsoul, my co-driver] announced the pace note, it was already too late. Luckily we were able to rejoin the road and make it to the finish.
“But the risk was worth it.”
Mikko Hirvonen took the final spot on the podium, his first rostrum since Rally de Portugal in April. The Finn ran fifth initially, gaining two places as the event went on, when Ogier and then Latvala stumbled. He ended up over 1.5 minutes off second and over 2.5 minutes off his team-mate.
The result sees Citroen close on Volkswagen in the Manufacturers', with the gap coming down from 55 points to 26.
Behind, Martin Prokop equalled his career-best result by taking fourth in his Jipocar Czech National Team-run Ford Fiesta RS WRC, albeit 5 minutes 24.7 seconds off Hirvonen: “A wonderful weekend – a really good result for us on tarmac, it is perfect,” Prokop noted. “I am very happy for the team and I want to thank all the Czech fans that turned out to support me.”
WRC2 winner Robert Kubica completed the top five, 12.9 seconds up on Elfyn Evans, his nearest class rival.
Latvala came in seventh, re-starting under the Rally 2 rules on Sunday, following his exit in SS12: “I have probably found the speed on tarmac, but I also have to learn other things now,” he stated.
Hayden Paddon was eighth in his Skoda Fabia S2000 – also securing third in WRC2 – with Mads Ostberg and Evgeny Novikov rounding out the points' scorers. Ostberg had been on course for fifth, but was another runner caught out in SS12. Novikov went off too, but in the very first stage on Thursday.
Of the rest, Khalid Al-Qassimi, Yuriy Protasov, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Sepp Wiegand filled positions 11 through to 14, with WRC3 winner, Sebastien Chardonnet 15th, ahead of Keith Cronin and Sebastien Ogier.
After his off on Friday, Ogier had little to compete for, although he did claim the final Manufacturers' point for VW and took three bonus points for winning the Power Stage, 3.9 seconds up on Sordo. His lead in the Drivers' Championship has now been cut by 15 points, although he is still 75 points out front, with four events to go and a maximum 112 up for grabs.
In the JWRC, Pontus Tidemand took JWRC victory, 1m 47.5s up on Michael Burri. Yeray Lemes was third – although the Junior event did not include Sunday's final two tests.
As for retirements, Per-Gunnar Andersson and Michal Kosciuszko were the two biggest names not to make it to the end. Andersson retired early on with mechanical problems, while Kosciuszko had to pull out following SS5, after injuring his back.
The WRC now heads to 'down under' next month, with Rally Australia running from September 13-15.
To view the result for the 2013 Rallye Deutschland - CLICK HERE