Sebastien Loeb, along with Petter Solberg, enjoyed a good fight with the young guns in the World Rally Championship on the opening leg of Wales Rally Great Britain and it was on the last stage when he took command as the leader. The challenge is far from over with two muddy days left to run and both champions are relishing their one-two edge, but they also are very aware of those behind them.
"We had a great scrap with the other three today," said Loeb. "There's still nothing in it as Sebastien Ogier and Petter Solberg are only four seconds behind."
Loeb ended up with four stage wins, including the opener which ran on Thursday night. Yet heading into the seventh stage, it was Jari-Matti Latvala holding first overall. When the Ford Focus driver touched a bank, he ended up with a puncture, handing the overall lead to Loeb. The Frenchman already secured the title in his Citroen C4 and can add to his wins this season with Sunday's victory.
The close racing was even more remarkable considering the weather in the Welsh forests with winds, rain and fog. "The rain caused some aquaplaning in SS5 and I think I dried the road for my pursuers," said Loeb. "In the next two stages I felt a lot more at ease. We had a great scrap with the other three today. There's still nothing in it as Sebastien Ogier and Petter Solberg are only four seconds behind."
Second today with consistent top runs and only 1.8s out of the overall lead, Solberg is aiming to the victory in his privateer Citroen. The Norwegian might have been the overnight leader, had the car's gearbox and starter motor not act up.
Even with his mechanical woes Solberg was still quick, "I am so surprised we managed to get second fastest time on the final stage, that shouldn't really be possible. So, I'm happy about second, which means a good road-position for tomorrow."
Sebastien Ogier, who had one stage win, runs third, 3.6s off Loeb's time. Mikko Hirvonen fared better at the end than his Ford factory teammate and sits fourth but needs over 38 seconds to even challenge the top three. Ford was hoping for better in their last event with the successful Ford Focus RS. Dani Sordo is fifth, just under seven-tenths to the Ford Finn.
Latvala ended the day sixth, over one minute to Loeb. The Finn explained what happened: "My windscreen was misting and the visibility was bad and getting worse, because it was also foggy. I approached a right corner over a crest and I didn't turn in early enough and hit the bank. It wasn't until I reached the next junction that I realised the impact had knocked the tyre off the rim."
Prior to the incident, Latvala had three stage wins and traded the overall lead with Loeb five times with the Ford driver holding the edge after four of the seven stages. Loeb, however, held the lead three times but mainly at the end when it counted.
With two days to go and plenty of time for Solberg to make needed repairs the fight promises to wage on between these two champions. Loeb has been no stranger to the top of the podium this year but Solberg is still hungry for his first win as a privateer. It will come down to who will be willing to risk more and push the last bit of speed out of their Citroen C4 as an era of WRC comes to an end.