Sebastien Loeb continues to dominate the World Rally Championship this season, having notched his fourth consecutive 2009 victory in the fourth round of what really is a competitive season. It might look like the Frenchman is just out-classing his rivals but truly Mikko Hirvonen is giving it his all as the Finn searches for the elusive first win of the new season. For now, the Finn can take solace in earning four podiums in a row.
Loeb had his Citroen C4 in front of Hirvonen, who led day one, after Saturday leg 2 by 26.8 seconds and by the end of the final stage 18 today, Loeb had increased his lead over the Ford Focus driver to take the Rally Portugal victory with 24.3 seconds to spare; like loose change.
"Today's result takes our score to four wins from four rounds, which is the best start to a season we have ever made," remarked Loeb after the podium ceremony. "As ever, it wasn't an easy weekend. We made a small error on Day 1 which forced us to push hard to make up for lost ground, but the second leg went perfectly for us and we were able to control from in front this morning. It's good that Ford chose not to play a tactical game on Friday afternoon. We preferred to play it straight on Saturday, too, and it's nice to have won that way."
Hirvonen is in the Ford factory effort and ended today 10 points behind Loeb in the overall picture for this year's WRC crown. He will continue to search for a way to stop Loeb who is setting records with each event this season. Still, it is early, with eight rounds left for the duo and their cohorts to garner the coveted podiums and points.
"It was incredibly dusty this morning," said Hirvonen. "I started the day thinking a win was possible but the dust hung in the cool air and I realised after the opening stage that in those conditions I had no chance of catching Loeb. I hoped to win here but it wasn't meant to be. I think second place was the maximum I could achieve. Eight points is good for me because many drivers scored zero.
"It's frustrating to see Loeb on top again but I'm not giving up on the championship title just yet -- we are only a third of the way through the season. I go to every event hoping to win and without him I would do that! The car was excellent here and I really enjoyed the rally, although it was tough yesterday when I had to clean the road at the front," he added.
Adding to Citroen's hold on the Manufacturers' title fight was Dani Sordo, who now sits just seven points adrift of Hirvonen. The Spaniard did not give chase to the Finn ahead of him when the final leg started by only 29.6 seconds; instead he maintained a controlled run for the points while keeping the charging Norwegian at bay.
"As soon as it became clear that I wouldn't be able to catch Mikko today, I decided not to take any risks," admitted Sordo. "I felt very comfortable with my car throughout the rally, and that's a good omen for the rounds which come next."
Sordo had nearly a one minute lead on Petter Solberg in a privateer Citroen Xsara as they started the final leg this morning. The two maintained their distance with little change.
The Ford Junior team, Stobart M-Sport, saw the other Solberg at the wheel. Henning Solberg finished fifth, ahead of Mads Ostbert's Subaru Impreza. Henning was locked in a battle with fellow M-Sport driver Matthew Wilson over fifth until the penultimate stage. There Wilson rolled his focus into retirement while on track for a top five stage time. "To finish the rally like this is a huge disappointment," said Wilson. The final two in the top points were Federico Villagra and Khalid Al Qassimi, both in Ford Focus cars.
No one ever wants to see a teammate retire but Henning was content with fifth, "I'm very pleased with this result, it give us more important points for the drivers' championship and also for the Stobart team. But I'm not happy about the way it happened and it's a real shame for Matthew. This rally wasn't easy as the stages are very tricky with differing sections and it's so hard to get a nice flow and rhythm in some of the stages. We tried to battle with him this morning but it was over before it had even begun. Our screen misted up badly and we had to stop for a while to let it clear; but the dust was also a lot worse on the last day, very patchy and inconsistent. Generally it was a good rally and we had a fantastic road position during the second day. We really used this to our advantage and put in some competitive times."
Next rally takes the teams packing to South America for Rally Argentina. Last year the event was cold, muddy, and miserable for all involved. With luck the weather will be more favorable in two weeks times.