David C. Schilke, WRC correspondent
The battle between Jari-Matti Latvala and Sebastien Loeb ended early today when the Frenchman was forced to retire due to a head on collision with a non-competitor’s car on public roads leaving the Halfway stage. No injuries were reported but Loeb and Daniel Elena’s Citroen was damaged beyond repair. That left Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila sitting on top with no one close to challenge. The Finn hasn’t earned a win all year but closed the 2011 season with victory, while earning fourth in the overall standings for the season. Latvala was awarded the Abu Dhabi Spirit of the Rally Award in recognition of his performance.
“It’s a great way to end the season,” smiled Latvala. “It has been a long time since my last win and I’ve endured some frustrating times since then, but they’re now over. Everything came together during the second half of the season and I’m so pleased to win here. It’s my 10th Rally GB and it’s the rally where I began my WRC career in 2002, so it feels like a home event for me.
“When Seb [Loeb] retired this morning the pressure lifted from my shoulders. I eased my pace and didn’t take any risks, although the change from driving flat out to driving more cautiously was tricky. But I found the right rhythm and kept my concentration, which isn’t easy when you’re not driving on the limit. The team did a great job all year and this was a brilliant way to close the season,” added the Finn.
Loeb explains what happened on the road today, “It’s a pity because I would have liked to have finished the battle with Jari-Matti. What happened is fairly ordinary: we were on a narrow road and we came upon a car on the top of a crest where there was no visibility. The Spanish driver had the wrong reflex and pulled in to the right and we collided. The radiator was damaged and we were out on the spot. It’s proof that a rally isn’t over till you’re back in the parc fermé!”
Although Loeb was forced to retire today, the Frenchman had already secured the World Rally Championship title on Friday, when Latvala’s teammate, Mikko Hirvonen dropped out of the event. While Loeb would most likely have preferred to win this weekend, the Citroen driver can take comfort in now being the most successful driver in the history of the FIA, by earning eight titles, beating Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 record by one championship.
“So far we haven’t really had time to celebrate this title as we were completely involved in the rally. Again this morning we had to get up at 4h30 to go and tackle the stages,” added Loeb. “Now we can celebrate it at last with the whole team. All the titles are important and memorable as they’re never put together in the same way. This season, the overall level was very high and we had to fight right down till the last rally. I’m proud to have become the most-titled racing driver, even if one shouldn’t really try and compare the different branches of the sport. I never thought I’d achieve this when I started my career!”
With Loeb and Hirvonen out of the running, and Citroen driver Sebastien Ogier down the order from crashing on the first day, the podium was left open for M-Sport Stobart drivers Mads Østberg and Henning Solberg. Their respective second and third place helped Ford sweep the podium.
“I am so happy right now,” said Østberg. “This is the perfect end to the season and to finish on the podium alongside [Solberg] and [Latvala] who are such nice guys is even better! Loeb’s exit was unfortunate - it was through no fault of his own so maybe we didn’t deserve to finish second but I can’t say that I am not happy to end the year in the same way that it started in Sweden.”
Solberg and new co-driver Ilka Minor had to fight for third place with Kris Meeke. The MINI driver put up a good fight and settled for fourth just 7.2 seconds behind, “It was a good fight with Kris [Meeke] today. I tried to keep calm and just look at the times to make sure we could try to stay ahead. I am very, very happy to finish on the podium and it’s my first time alongside Ilka, so that is really good. For sure, it has been a really tough year but this is just the most perfect way to end the season.”
Meeke was a less than two seconds off the Norwegian’s pace heading into the finale test, which was also designated as the event’s Power stage. Meeke had the aim to win the stage but unfortunately spun out and lost any chance of a podium. Still the recent performance of the MINI team shows they are ready to challenge a full 2012 season.
“All in all we had a pretty good weekend,” summed up Meeke. “We had a few issues during the rally, which perhaps cost us about three minutes. Still I am very disappointed with the Power Stage, as when it came to producing the goods we didn’t, made a mistake and paid the price, but that is the way it goes. Hopefully there is a bigger future for us than fighting for third overall, as in a year’s time we want to be able to fight for a win. I feel very positive about the season as for a new car and a new team to be in there challenging for podiums is fantastic.”
Matthew Wilson rounded out the top five, placing all three M-Sport Stobart cars in a good position for the final event. Sebastien Ogier closed the year by winning the Power Stage but his first day troubles meant he could only finish eleventh in the overall. American rally driver Ken Block finished his year in the WRC with ninth place.
As the season comes to an end the points races are all settled. Loeb and Elena are once again co-champions and the Citroen team reigned supreme. Hirvonen and his partner Jarmo Lehtinen took second, with their Ford team as the runner-up to Citroen. Ogier and Julien Ingrassia were third in their respective titles, followed by Latvala and his co-driver Miikka Anttila. In the Manufactures’ Championship the M-Sport Stobart team earned third, ahead of privateer Petter Solberg, who retired from this weekend’s event early on.
The 2012 season will be quickly upon us as Monte Carlo finally makes its return as the traditional start of the WRC season in January. Then the snow rally of Sweden will be next in February followed by the first proper gravel race schedule in March at Mexico. In all 13 rallies are on next year’s schedule.
For now, instead of looking ahead, let’s look back at Loeb’s list of accomplishments. The Champion now stands at eight consecutive titles, 67 wins, 103 podiums and a total of 1281 points out of 151 rally starts. In all Loeb is considered one of the most successful drivers on a professional level in all time. And by his side from the beginning of his amazing career is Elena, who is recognized as the highest winning co-driver the sport has ever seen. Together the pair have been unstoppable, and it’s inevitable their records are sure to grow next year as they plan at least another season with Citroen.
Besides Loeb’s announcement to stay with Citroen little has been announced the order of the teams’ line-ups. Stay tuned to Motorsport.com as the news trickles in, most likely with deals and announcements planned right after this weekend.