In his first event since being crowned World Rally Champion for an incredible seventh straight season, Sébastien Loeb demonstrated just why he has been so successful by notching up a sixth consecutive victory on Rallye de España this weekend – the Frenchman's 61st career WRC triumph.
Leading from start-to-finish, all pressure on Loeb was released when namesake and fellow Citroën star Sébastien Ogier made a mistake on Saturday morning that cost him 15 minutes, leaving the Alsacien with a handy margin over new second-place man Petter Solberg.
So comfortable was Loeb in his position, indeed, that he was able to back off and set 'only' the fifth-quickest stage time on SS15 and sixth-best on SS16 at the end of the rally, as he wound up 35.3 seconds clear of the last man to clinch the WRC crown before him – and in so doing, the 36-year-old ensure that the venerable C4 WRC, which is to be replaced by the new DS3 from 2011, will retire having never been beaten on asphalt in its four-year career.
“It was another very good result for us in Spain and I'm very happy,” the WRC 'record man' told the official website. “We had no pressure for the championship on this event, so we were just able to drive as we wanted. We pushed hard on the gravel on Friday, and from then it was a little bit easier to control the advantage.”
Indeed, Solberg was far more preoccupied with looking behind him from Saturday onwards rather than looking ahead, as home hero Dani Sordo in the second of the works Citroëns homed in on him, the Spaniard recovering from a poor opening day at the end of which he had languished a lowly sixth. The fastest time through the final stage of the rally helped to secure the position for the Norwegian.
“I went really sideways on the final stage – maybe too much,” confessed the PSWRT privateer. “I wasn't sure if I could do it. This means so much to me to beat the factory cars, because our car really isn't the same.”
“I think I was trying a bit too much,” mused Sordo, “but today has been a really nice day. I'm very grateful to all the spectators – I got a lot of support, so this third place is for everyone who came out to watch.”
Having occupied a podium spot in the early stages of Rallye de España, BP Ford Abu Dhabi ace and regular Crash.net
columnist Jari-Matti Latvala ultimately slipped back to finish a distant fourth as he continues to acclimatise himself fully to asphalt, whilst team-mate and compatriot Mikko Hirvonen was left paying the price of a turbo pipe issue on the second full day that consigned him to no better than fifth, with the 2008 and 2009 world championship runner-up already looking ahead to a stronger showing on Rally Great Britain next month.
“I'm finally finding the relaxed feeling that I need on asphalt,” confirmed Latvala. “Since I drove at the Nürburgring 24 Hours earlier this year, I've felt a lot more confident on sealed surfaces.”