Sebastien Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena closed out their 2012 champion season by notching their 76th FIA World Rally Championship victory. Loeb is known as the tarmac specialist and he proved that on the second leg in Spain by taking the overall lead. For the eighth time, the Citroen aces are the winners of Rally de Espana.
Loeb and Elena will depart from WRC competition on a full-time basis. In 2013, they will be able to add to their tally of wins in selected events; the Monte Carlo Rally has been confirmed. However they leave with a record nine consecutive titles!
“A big thank you to everyone, I’m pleased to finish the season and more or less my rallying career with a win,” admitted Seb on the team radio. “Once again, we had to fight to get the win, as the unpredictable weather didn’t really make our task any easier. We’ll all enjoy this result together. Thank you, thank you for everything we’ve experienced together. This marks the close of one chapter, but we’ve another ahead of us that is about to begin.”
For his own future racing career, Loeb plans to take on the FIA World Touring Car Championship in 2014.
In their Citroen DS3, Loeb and Elena struggled a bit when the weather changed from the morning to the afternoon runs; but they were able to place the pressure on Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala for today’s victory.
The Finn and his co-driver Miikka Anttila had the advantage on the opening day when Loeb was not having his best performance on the gravel stages. Rain played a factor for the Citroen team, but even Latvala in his Fiesta RS was not the leader at the end of the day. The young guns, Mads Ostberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson had the early lead in the muddy mess.
Once on the tarmac, Loeb made up ground taking the lead with Latvala chasing him; 20 seconds separated the two. The Finn admitted that catching the Frenchman today would be difficult, but he came close. The rain that came in the afternoon aided the Ford driver who closed the gap but he missed the victory by seven seconds.
Citroen’s Finn, Mikko Hirvonen, and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen ended third. They mounted a charge over the three days to ensure that Citroen would head back home to France with their eighth Manufacturers’ championship.*
In their first season with the French team, Hirvonen and Lehtinen finished second in the points, which is the first 1-2 championship finish for Citroen. It was not an easy day for Hirvonen as he had to keep two of M-Sport’s rising stars in their Ford Fiesta RS from taking the final podium. Both Ott Tanak and Mads Ostberg were in the hunt to overtake the Finn.
“We have improved again on tarmac, which was my main goal for this weekend. Our first World Championship with Citroen is now behind us, and I think we can be pleased with what we have achieved. We'll be turning our attention very quickly to 2013.”
Citroen Team Principal Yves Matton commented: “This rally was extremely complicated, with day one on gravel, which was held in what you might describe as unpredictable conditions. This leg was more a question of surviving than racing. We saw a lot of competitors make costly mistakes but Seb and Mikko showed their race craft to keep out of trouble. They knew that we’d be comfortable on tarmac and they managed the situation appropriately.”
Matton added, “We’re pleased to have secured our partner Michelin’s 250th win in WRC, and to have done so in appropriately varied conditions – gravel and tarmac, and in wet and dry conditions.”
Latvala and Anttila have had a rough year but in the end, third place in the title fight was not an easy task. “After such a difficult season, third in the championship means a lot to me, especially after missing a round through injury,” said Latvala. “In terms of time, this is the closest I have ever been to a win on a rally that is primarily asphalt. Hard tyres were the right choice for the final three stages and I was closing with every kilometre. One more stage may have been enough for me to do it.”
It was an emotional day for the Ford camp as the manufacturer pulls out of the WRC as a factory team. Their right arm, M-Sport will continue to support and field the Blue Oval brand in 2013. Ford Racing senior manager Gerard Quinn said: “It’s the end of an emotional weekend as it marks the farewell of Ford World Rally Team from the WRC. It was a great honour to have led this programme for Ford over the past three years and I’d like to thank our drivers, co-drivers, every team member and fan that has supported Ford.”
Latvala closed out his season with third in the championship, and along with Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson, Ford leaves with second in the manufacturers’ standings. “I wanted to finish my career at Ford on a high note and I’m so pleased to have done that. I’ve had many fantastic years here building my career and I would like to thank everyone in the team for their support during that time. I have great memories of my career here that I will carry through my lifetime,” Latvala said.
Solberg moved to the Ford camp this year and ended up fifth in the points after what was a nightmare of a rally for the Norwegian. On the second stage of the rally, Solberg was taken out of the first leg when he hit a water submerged rock in one of the many ruts. However he returned with the 25 minute penalty using the Rally 2 regulations. He started the second leg in 41st and ended today in 11th. A great comeback for the 2003 WRC champion.
“I made a good start but everything went wrong on only the second stage. That sums up the season for me. I was strong at the beginning but unfortunately it didn’t last. I had the speed but bad luck and some mistakes cost me dearly,” said Solberg.
Ostberg and Andersson started strong in their Adapta Fiesta but so did Ott Tanak and Kuldar Sikk in their M-Sport Ford team Fiesta. Both teams were again proving they can contest for the lead and the points. Tanak was able to overtake the Norwegian until the Estonian hit a barrier and dropped out. That left Ostberg with the chance to move up from fifth to fourth in Rally Catalunya season finale; but more importantly Ostberg and Andersson took fourth in the year-end points.
Said Tanak, “It has been a very difficult day for us which only got worse this afternoon. We ran wide on the first stage [this afternoon, SS16] and hit a barrier – I was just carrying way too much speed into the corner.”
Ostberg commented: “This rally has been up and down for us – first up, and then down. OK, today has been a lot better than yesterday, but still a little bit difficult. We tried to push and ended up fighting with Ott and Mikko. We tried to catch Mikko but it was very difficult. We came close, but not quite close enough, so unfortunately we were unable to gain back all the time we lost on Saturday. But I am pleased to be fourth, and fourth in the championship. It may be a bit disappointing now, but I know that it is an absolutely fantastic achievement.”
(*) Subject to publication of the official results by the FIA.