David C. Schilke, WRC correspondent
After finishing three races well off the podium Sebastien Loeb is finally back on the top spot, just in time to pull out a slight championship lead heading into the World Rally Championship season finale in Wales next month. The Citroen ace left his rivals in the dust on day one this weekend and enjoyed a comfortable margin to claim his fourth victory of the year. An extra point by taking third in the power stage extends Loeb’s title lead to eight points over Mikko Hirvonen.
"It's a perfect race for us with no mistake. One point in the power stage it's even better." tweeted Loeb after the rally.
Loeb's victory earned the Citroen Total World Rally Rally Team their seventh WRC Constructors' Championship.
“For the moment we’re celebrating Citroën’s seventh title!" said Loeb . "But the drivers’ crown is far from over. Mikko Hirvonen has done a good job by finishing second here and we know he’ll be competitive on the stages in Wales. We must finish in front of him. The best thing we could do would be to win. So our destiny is in our own hands!”
Hirvonen finished the Spanish event in second after his Ford teammate gracefully handed the position to him. The Finn put in a cautious but drama free run as other drivers suffered with bad luck or mistakes for much of the weekend. With the points race so tight, Hirvonen will have to be at “maximum attack” to beat Loeb at the Wales Rally GB. Once again the season comes down between these two drivers on the final event of the year.
“It was a tough rally and initially I struggled for pace on the asphalt,” said Hirvonen. “However, I made some changes to the way I drove, my times improved and my confidence increased. It took me a long time to realise what I needed to do, but I finished with a good feeling and thanks to Jari-Matti’s great support, it means the championship is still wide open going to the final round.
Under team orders from Ford, Jari-Matti Latvala took the final podium after ensuring Hirvonen would earn maximum points. The younger Finn had his best weekend on tarmac yet and claimed six stage wins during his chase after Loeb. Unfortunately, Latvala could never close the gap to Loeb close enough and had to give up the second place he held for much of the rally after spinning out of the lead.
“I’m still annoyed about my spin on Friday when I lost the chance of victory. It was my mistake, and a painful one, but the conditions weren’t the same for everyone. However, the positives from this weekend far outweigh that one mistake,” commented Lavala.
The new MINI team once again showed they are becoming strong competitors with Dani Sordo finishing fourth and Kris Meeke just behind in fifth place. Sordo was cheered by local Spanish fans for his third top five finish of the year. Had dust from the first day hamper Sordo's pace the Spaniard very will may have been on the podium once more for the new team.
“It is okay to be fourth, but we lost a lot on the first day on the gravel stages and with the dust. We had hoped the rain would have come a little bit earlier today. For the first two stages we had the wrong tyres and the others had the right ones, then in the final stage we had the right ones. It was fun and a little bit slippery in some places. I am quite okay, but not totally happy as I really wanted to finish on the podium on my home rally, but it didn’t happen this time.”
The MINI pair dominated today’s power stage, with Meeke taking the stage win and three points for it. Sordo took second on the stage. Knowing rain was on its way the team packed a set of extra soft tires for each car in the morning. At the final service the set came in handy with the weather fulfilling its promise on the very last stage. Having soft rubber in the conditions gave Meeke the advantage he needed to win his first ever Power Stage.
"To be quicker than Dani on the same tyres on his home patch is something pretty special, smiled Meeke. Over the whole rally I don’t have the experience to compete with the other guys yet, but this shows that when I know where we are going we can be with them."
Citroen's hope to block Hirvonen and Ford from gaining the podium this weekend went up in smoke when Sebastien Ogier retired on the penultimate stage. The Frenchman had a disastrous weekend with multiple punctures already taking him out of podium contention. Ogier was trying his best to make up lost ground for fourth when his engine let go.
“Today, we’re very proud of our World Championship title, the fourth in succession for Citroën, said Olivier Quesnel, Citroën Racing Team Principal. "It’s the result of consistent work by a calm and humble team. We’ve stuck together through the hard times. We’ve won ten out of the twelve rallies held so far, which is a pretty good score. Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia should also be associated with this result, as they had a great season despite their retirement this weekend. We’re going to analyze his car in the workshops to find out exactly what the problem was, but we already know that it isn’t linked to Sébastien Loeb’s retirement in France. We had two objectives this season, the drivers’ title and manufacturers’ crown. Today, we fulfilled one of them!"
Click here for the Rally de España final results.