WRC: Loeb wins in Spain to close in on eighth championship

Sebastien Loebon on Sunday took a huge step toward winning his eighth World Rally Championship.

 on 10/23/2011

Citroen's SebastienLoeb on Sunday took a huge step toward winning his eighth World Rally Championship, with a crucial victory on the Rally of Spain--the only round of the series to run on mixed gravel and asphalt stages.

Loeb headed into the penultimate round of the championship tied in points with Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen. Just three points behind them was Loeb's teammate, Sebastien Ogier, the final element of a three-way fight for the title.

Having suffered a run of bad luck over the last three rallies, Loeb was determined to put his championship campaign back on track in Spain, a rally that he has won for the last six years.

“It was really important for me to do well here; so there was no safety margin,” said Loeb. “It was a really hard rally, mentally as well as physically. But as I have always said, the title is still a long way from being won. We're leading again but we still have to get through Rally Great Britain, which is the final round, with no problems.”

Because he arrived in Spain as championship leader, Loeb had the dubious honor of running first on the road. This is normally a big disadvantage on gravel because of the "road-sweeping" effect that makes the stage faster with each car, but in Spain it actually turned out to be a partial advantage: The dry conditions meant that dust from previous cars on the stage remained in the air, forcing competitors further down the field to slow down or even stop.

The problem became even worse during the long stage held in the dark on Friday night, which Loeb won. The Frenchman trailed Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala--the undisputed star of the rally--by 16 seconds heading into it, because he lost time sweeping the road clean in the afternoon. But on the long stage, Latvala lost time with a spin and a puncture. It was a pivotal moment, as Loeb never again trailed a competitor. Ogier also dropped time with a punctured tire earlier in the day, relegating him to fourth behind Loeb, Latvala and Hirvonen.

Loeb hung onto his lead throughout the second day, run entirely on asphalt, but once more it was Latvala taking the fight to the Frenchman by winning three of the day's six stages.
Hirvonen, by contrast, had a bad run for reasons he could not quite explain. The Finn managed to cling onto his third place but lost time to the top two, who remained separated by half a minute.
Latvala described the all-asphalt second day as “the best day of my career on Tarmac," but many people considered it to be one of the best days of his career, period.

Yet another puncture for Ogier on Saturday morning cost him even more time, and he concluded day two in fifth place behind the Mini of local hero Dani Sordo.
“For me, the championship is over now,” concluded Ogier. “I just try to get to the end.”
Unfortunately for him, he was not able to realize that ambition, either; he retired with an engine-related problem on the final afternoon.

Loeb was able to maintain his advantage on the last day but there was plenty of activity behind him. The two Fords swapped places when Latvala checked-in early for the final stage, earning him a two-minute penalty to drop behind Hirvonen. This handed Loeb a victory margin of more than two minutes, with Citroen wrapping up the manufacturers' title for the seventh time.

The final stage was also the Power Stage, which awards extra championship points to the top-three drivers. A sudden downpour just before the start of the stage provided a dramatic finale, with the Minis--which were armed with soft compound tires--able to find an advantage. Northern Irishman Kris Meeke claimed his first ever World Rally Championship stage win, ahead of teammate Dani Sordo. The Spaniard and Meeke finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

Among the retirements were former world champion Petter Solberg, who damaged his car in the dust on the opening stage, and 2007Formula oneworld champion Kimi Raikkonen, who retired as the result of a fuel leak that caused a small fire.
Gymkhana legend Ken Block also did not see the finish ramp, although he showed himself capable of setting top-eight times in his Ford Fiesta WRC.