31 August 2008
New Zealand - day 3: Loeb wins, Ford flounders.
Sebastien Loeb has led Citroen to a stunning 1-2 result in the Rally New Zealand after Ford ran into an astonishing series of problems on a thrilling final day of competition.
Victory was almost certainly set to go the way of Ford and Mikko Hirvonen when the Finn established a comfortable lead with only two stages and 32kms remaining, but a cruel puncture on the second run through Whaanga Coast robbed him of any chance to resist both Loeb and his team-mate Dani Sordo.
Also damaging his car following an ensuing spin, Hirvonen's eventual third place was, remarkably, the high point on a day that Ford are unlikely to forget for many years to come.
Heading into the Whaanga Coast stage for the second time today, there was quiet apprehension that the ruts created on the first loop could cause some problems, particularly with the top four drivers unable to back off as they continued to dispute the lead. However, with several PWRC runners hitting problems there earlier in the day, the warnings should have been apparent that this stage was going to be considerably more treacherous than it was just a few hours earlier.
Nonetheless, confidence was high after Hirvonen had pulled out a good margin over team-mate Latvala heading into the stage, while Sordo and Loeb were now at arms length and looking set to settle for third and fourth.
However, their fortunes changed rapidly when reports came through that Latvala had stopped on the stage. The Finn had damaged the underside of his Focus when he cut the inside of a corner too readily and struck a rock. Despite his attempts to continue, Latvala was forced to park up and ponder his third straight retirement.
The spotlight was soon shifted away from him though when Hirvonen began pumping in unusually slow split times. It soon became apparent that Hirvonen, who was now first on the road, had picked up a puncture and was struggling to keep his Ford moving. Spinning off as he attempted to extract as much out of the floundering car as possible, the drama has robbed him of a much-needed and well deserved victory in a very cruel way.
Just to compound Ford's misery, moments later word came through that Francois Duval had also stopped on the stage. The Belgian had been lauded with praise throughout the weekend for his quiet and consistent run to fifth, but found a fine result going wanting as he joined Latvala – the driver he replaces in the factory team for the next two rounds – in propping up the retirement's list
Their despair, however, provided unbridled joy for Citroen, who inherited an easy-looking 1-2 as a result. Probably one the most eventful days in Loeb's career, the Frenchman entered the penultimate stage down in fourth place after an earlier spin had seemingly deemed him out of the running for victory.
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