Sebastien Loeb claimed an emotional eighth victory in Rally Argentina this afternoon on what is likely to be his final gravel event in the FIA World Rally Championship.
The reigning world champion finished a punishing fifth round of the season 55.0 seconds ahead of Sebastien Ogier, bringing an end to his fellow Frenchman’s run of three straight wins.
It was Loeb’s 78th world rally win and almost certain to be his last away from asphalt. The 39-year-old is tackling a limited programme of four rallies this season as he switches to circuit racing and opted for Argentina as his sole gravel outing.
“It’s great emotion to win here,” he said as fans surrounded his Citroen DS3 at the end of the final stage. “It was a tough rally with complicated stages, but there was a great atmosphere and it was great to feel that all weekend.
“After so many months since my last gravel rally it was difficult to find the feeling in the first stage and to get the car working for me, but it was the perfect drive,” added Loeb, whose final WRC appearance is scheduled for France in October.
Such was the desire from the passionate Argentine fans to see Loeb’s farewell that an estimated 80,000 people lined the final El Condor stage.
Ogier dominated the early part of the four-day, 14-stage event, winning five of the first six stages in his Volkswagen Polo R. But he could not break Loeb, and when he went off the road for almost 40 seconds yesterday morning, Loeb transformed a 17 second deficit into a lead.
After puncturing a front left tyre on the next stage, Ogier was happy to throttle back, content in the knowledge that Loeb’s programme means he cannot be a contender for a 10th drivers’ title.
“It’s a good result for us,” said Ogier. “We had a lot of problems this weekend but we’re happy to be at the end. We’re still in a learning year and at the moment, after five events, it’s going well so I want to thank the team for all the work they’ve done.”
“We had a few problems, even this morning, and I finished the rally with a car not really good, but still I managed to push and get extra points in the Power Stage,” added Ogier, who leads the drivers’ standings by 54 points.
Jari-Matti Latvala finished third in another Polo R after a fierce final day tussle with Evgeny Novikov. The Finn dropped almost two minutes yesterday with a puncture and started today 8.2 seconds behind the Russian’s Ford Fiesta RS.
Latvala won all four stages, including the bonus point-paying Power Stage, and his podium was secured when Novikov spun early in the final stage.
Thierry Neuville finished fifth in another Fiesta RS, the Belgian constantly working to improve the set-up of his Fiesta RS. Mikko Hirvonen was second after Ogier’s problems, but a puncture followed by electrical troubles with his DS3 cost more than six minutes and he slipped to sixth.
Mads Ostberg recovered to seventh in a Fiesta RS after damaging his car’s steering and a driveshaft in the opening leg.
Andreas Mikkelsen snatched eighth from Dani Sordo on the last stage after gearbox problems compounded the Spaniard’s first leg roll. Martin Prokop completed the top 10 after he, too, rolled in the opening leg.