By David C. Schilke
His rivals did all they could to keep him out of the top spot for the podium but Sebastien Loeb was tenacious in his pursuit of his second career Rally Finland win. The event, centered around Jyväskylä, Finland is considered the crown jewel of rally, much as Monaco is to Formula 1 or Le Mans to sports cars. It is rare for an outsider to win here. The fast and flowing roads with many blind crests and jumps need local knowledge and familiarity with the terrain to be fast here. So for Loeb, a Frenchman, to win here once was a dark day to the Finnish rally fans. Loeb becoming the first non-Nordic driver to ever win here twice reconfirms that he is one of the greatest the sport has ever seen.
In all three days Loeb was forced to start first on the road as everyone around him played the tactic game of slowing down to slot behind him. Both his Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier and Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala let Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena sweep the loose stuff in hopes of slowing him down. The pressure was on to beat Loeb this weekend, as three tarmac rallies are slated on the schedule, which could be considered three more easy victories for Loeb; the Frenchman dominates that surface. The final stand to keep Loeb from his eighth consecutive World Rally Championship needed to be this weekend, as the WRC came off its summer break.
It’s one of the greatest wins of my career, but I had to work for it and it took a long time before it took shape.
“It’s one of the greatest wins of my career," smiled Loeb. "But I had to work for it and it took a long time before it took shape. Sometimes you have to go beyond the limits to open up the gap. I felt really good on the roads with the Citroën DS3 WRC, even more so than in the past with the Xsara or the C4. My aim was to be in the lead in the world championship before the events on tarmac. I’ve achieved it, but there are still a lot of points up for grabs.”
Day one had just three stages and Loeb decided to press ahead while Ogier and Latvala slowed up to slot behind him. The real charge began on Friday with eight challenging stages. Loeb kept the lead in the morning loop but soon fell behind Ogier. Both drivers then used a few tricks on each other to influence the starting order but in the end Loeb was still leading with his teammate just behind. While the Citroen team had an internal battle for road position Finland’s Latvala was able to close the gap in time to the pair, and start today’s stage in third, mere seconds within the lead.
The fight was set with eleven stages left to see who of the three could persevere for the win. Then, Mother Nature played a twist, and rain changed the entire game for the final leg. On damp roads Loeb didn’t suffer the penalty of being first on the road and earned the first two stage wins of the day. Instead of a gap of mere seconds his lead now had a 10 second cushion to Ogier while Latvala’s Fiesta fell further behind with the wrong rear differential setting for the conditions.
"The humidity was so high last night that all the roads were damp,” explained Latvala. “The moisture bound together the loose gravel and the cars ahead didn't have to sweep the dirt off the surface as we expected. Our road position wasn't the advantage we thought it would be. First in the order turned out to be the best because that's the position that offered the most traction."
Latvala figured out his setup for the afternoon and went on a last ditch charge while Loeb slowed to negotiate the now rutted roads. Meanwhile disappointment struck Ogier on stage 17 when the Citroen DS3 suffered a puncture, losing time to Loeb. On the next stage Latvala was able to take second from Ogier as he chased after the French invader leading the event. The Finn managed to take 10 seconds off of Loeb in the afternoon but the Frenchman still had eight seconds to spare to win.
"I was closing on the lead all the time but I ran out of kilometres. Just two more stages would have been enough. I drove badly this morning when the car didn't perform as I would have liked and I didn't know what to do. I finally realised that I needed to make a change in the differential, and when I made that everything came together. Unfortunately it was too late," lamented Latvala.
“It was all going pretty well until the last loop. We were in a good position to push for victory until we punctured. I feel frustrated because it was a racing incident that ruined our chances.”
Ogier finished the rally in third, clearly disappointed that his chance of wresting victory from Loeb was ruined, “It was all going pretty well until the last loop. We were in a good position to push for victory until we punctured. I feel frustrated because it was a racing incident that ruined our chances.”
The hard charger award belongs to Mikko Hirvonen who earned a lion’s share of stages while climbing up the order after crashing on the first day. The Finn found himself 36th overall but pressed on to eventually finish fourth, winning three extra points on the Power Stage along the way.
"I'm disappointed not to win," said Hirvonen. "My fightback was good and I had great speed all weekend, which makes it even more of a shame that I wasn't able to fight for victory. I have to thank the fans who gave me great support all rally. I love my home event and I enjoyed driving in front of them."
Petter Solberg rounded out the top five. The weekend was a mixed affair for the Citroen privateer. At times he looked to be on pace with the top teams but bad luck and lack of a huge budget kept him out of any chance of a podium.
“Yes, I am disappointed,” admitted Solberg. “Been pushing hard all weekend and without any result. The car was perfect after the test, but we didn’t manage to get it like that again. Had a problem with the front differentials this morning, but we fixed that at the service. And I can tell you, I have really been pushing and taking risks this afternoon, still we couldn’t keep the pace. Now we look ahead and switch over to Germany preparations!”
M-Sport’s Mad Ostberg came home sixth followed by teammate Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson. Former F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen came home ninth after having a crash on stage 17. Super 2000 class winner Juho Hanninen rounded out the overall top ten.
Sadly neither entry from MINI WRC Team finished the event today after it was found the cars had an overheating problem. Both Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke were in a points position before the issue slowed them into retirement.
“There is obviously a great sense of disappointment throughout the team that the rally should end for both Dani and Kris within sight of the finish. However, we have to take heart from the performance of the cars throughout the event, with their pure speed and the fact we were close to the pace right from the word go. We now go to a very different surface, with the asphalt rally of Germany which will present further challenges and another step in the learning curve for our new team,” said David Richards, MINI WRC Team Principal.
Loeb finished the rally where he started, in first. The champ held the lead for 20 of the 22 stages and earned 5 stage wins. Loeb now leads the championship by 27 points over Hirvonen, a number that is almost certain to increase after the three pending tarmac events along with the gravel challenge in Australia before the finale in Wales.