Just under four years ago, Marcus Grönholm defeated Sébastien Loeb by the slender margin of three tenths of a second on Rally New Zealand to register the narrowest World Rally Championship victory in history. Today, another Sébastien – Monsieur Ogier – cut his own triumph on Rally Jordan even finer.
On a nail-biting final afternoon in the Middle East, Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team star Jari-Matti Latvala relieved Loeb of second place in the morning and doggedly pressed on to overturn the deficit to Ogier, too, moving into the lead on the penultimate stage of the shortened event.
More than half-a-minute down at the beginning of the day, the Finn pushed absolutely to the ragged edge and after overhauling Ogier – penalised by running first-on-the-road today – he took an advantage of just half-a-second into the bonus point Power Stage...but that was precisely when the Frenchman hit back, becoming the first driver ever to win both the new-for-2011 Power Stage as well as the rally itself.
Pipping Latvala's team-mate Mikko Hirvonen by a scant four hundredths of a second, the 27-year-old reclaimed the lead he had held for much of the event to secure his fourth WRC success – and second on the bounce after Portugal last month – and move into third spot in the drivers' title chase, just five points adrift of the top of the table now.
“Incredible,” he enthused to the championship's official website, “an incredible day! I had to push like hell today. It's an amazing feeling. Jari-Matti was so fast and I had to drive flat-out. I'm so happy to end like this.”
“I pushed very hard and I can be satisfied with second place,” added Latvala, who conceded critical ground in the middle of the Power Stage before coming back strongly to within a whisker of outright rally victory. “I pushed as much as I could.”
Third place fell to new world championship leader Loeb, who battled against oversteer issues in his Citroën Total World Rally Team DS3 WRC day-long and made what he described as 'a big mistake' as he pushed for Power Stage glory, running very wide – but with nobody to threaten his bottom step on the rostrum, the error was of little consequence.
The fourth and final man who had been in the mix right at the front was former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, but the Norwegian's bid in his privately-entered Citroën came to grief on SS17 when, as he explains, 'about two kilometres into the stage, we had a major spin and just went off the road and got stuck – there were some really big rocks there, and we were not able to get the car back on the stage and continue'.
Solberg's misfortune promoted Hirvonen into fourth position, the Finn still left ruing his 'road sweeper' role on Friday that had cost him more than two minutes and destroyed his hopes of triumphing. The Finn nevertheless intelligently preserved his tyres for the Power Stage and earned two bonus points with the second-fastest time.