By David C. Schilke
After being handed a 1 minute penalty Friday for checking into a stage too early, Sebastien Loeb had practically written off any chance of winning Rally Argentina. That didn’t stop the World Rally Champion from pushing all Saturday to close on Mikko Hirvonen for second place. Loeb only needed to make up 4 more seconds to take the spot from Hirvonen. With his Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier strongly out front, it seemed second was the best he could do.
Today’s final leg opened with the long Ascochinga stage and it wasn’t long before Loeb overtook Hirvonen for second. Heading into the stage Ogier had well over half a minute on his rivals but that was reduced by half when the unthinkable happened. Ogier was keeping a brisk rhythm when he cut a left bend with a high bank. The car bounced into the air off the bank and rolled over. Although Ogier ended with four wheels on the ground and was able to immediately get moving, the Citroen's power steering was dead. There was nothing Ogier could do as Loeb and Hirvonen cut into his time during the three closing stages.
It seems that Rally Argentina is my happy hunting ground!
It wasn’t until the finale that Ogier lost his lead, the young Frenchman valiantly put all his effort to wrestle the car and keep from losing time. Yet it wasn’t enough, and Loeb earned his sixth victory in Argentina, playing his cards right in the final two days after ending the first leg 1 minute and 30 seconds off the pace.
"After Friday’s penalty I wasn’t counting on this victory," admitted Loeb. "We pushed really hard to get back in contact with the front-runners and to beat Hirvonen. Once again the outcome was decided by a hair’s breadth. It seems that Rally Argentina is my happy hunting ground!"
Hirvonen slotted second, just 2.4 seconds from Loeb. The Finn did his best to keep the pressure on Loeb but the Ford Fiesta couldn’t match his rival’s pace. Hirvonen was able to shore two extra points on the designated Power Stage, which was the final test of the day.
"I made a couple of small mistakes at the start of the stage and things were so close that I knew then that victory wasn't going to be mine," said Hirvonen. "Second was a good result after a hard weekend, which was a strange one also. I struggled on the asphalt sections and better driving there could have given me the win. I'm annoyed to lose by such a small margin, but the bonus points from the Power Stage were a boost."
Even with the flip Ogier took the final podium spot, but third is bittersweet when he started the day as an almost sure bet to win. With a valuable lesson learned Ogier keeps third in the championship while Loeb leads the field and Hirvonen maintains second for the title, just like their final finishing order today.
"All we had to do was to drive on to victory," lamented Ogier. "I had noted an apex to be taken in a corner, and it ended in a roll. We were able to restart but the car was damaged. In addition to the superficial damage, we no longer had power steering. The windscreen was broken and we lost our rear wing.
“It was really tough. In the last stage I felt that I wouldn’t be able to hold the wheel. Without power steering the car became incredibly heavy. We were totally unable to fight our corner," added the Frenchman.
Petter Soberg can relate to Ogier's woes as he also battled without power steering during the rally. The Citroen driver lost his on Saturday and with that, any chance of the podium. Today the Solberg team were back in fighting force and earned three points to win his first Power Stage of the year. The Norwegian is still after his first rally win since becoming a privateer driver. He'll have his next shot for victory in Greece.
"I’m so happy about finally getting that Power Stage win," smiled Solberg. "That was good fun, and a real bonus for me but of course, at the same time I’m a bit disappointed about not being on the podium. We had the chance, and without the problem yesterday evening, I am sure we would have been in a real fight for the win today"
Fifth went to Mad Ostberg, who had a strong drive in his M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta. Argentinean Federico Villagra came home sixth, finishing ahead of Friday's rally leader, Jari-Matti Latvala. Stobart's other driver, Mathew Wilson, rounded out the top eight.
Acropolis Rally of Greece is next on the calendar in June. Notably one of the toughest events in the WRC the rally will be one of attrition with high temperatures and plenty of sharp rocks to cause a puncture. Not ran in 2010, the historical event returns to its rightful place on the calendar. Three drivers have won here before, Loeb, Solberg and Hirvonen. Their knowledge of the event over Ogier will help but the Acropolis event has been known to cause upsets in the past. Perhaps this is where Ogier can redeem himself after such a costly error today. Even great drivers make mistakes, what makes them great is that they learn from it and rise above the disappointment, each error only makes them stronger.