The World Rally Championship is set for a nail-biting showdown in Rally Great Britain this month following the latest extraordinary twist in this season's yo-yo drivers' title battle. Sebastien Loeb's masterful Rally Spain victory, his sixth of the season, has moved the five-time world champion to within a point of the Finn Mikko Hirvonen, the championship leader who is aiming for a maiden world title.
It has been a season in which both drivers have delivered numerous sterling performances. Only the Rally Sardinia triumph of Jari- Matti Latvala, Hirvonen's BP Ford Abu Dhabi teammate, has interrupted the pair's duopoly of 10 wins. Each has retired from just one event this year; Loeb winning as Hirvonen failed to finish in Argentina in April, only for the roles to be reversed in Greece six weeks later.
Going into the Welsh valleys decider, Hirvonen's consistency - Argentina aside - has seen the 29-year old gather top-three finishes in all of the 12-event season's other 10 rounds. Loeb, Greece not included, has finished outside the top two only twice. The championship, however, could yet be decided by Latvala's Sardinian conquest. Ford chiefs were forlorn when Citroen's Loeb shot out of the championship blocks to amass 50 points from the first five rallies. Loeb's seemingly insurmountable 20-point lead spurred Ford's team director, Malcolm Wilson, to sanction Latvala's deserved Mediterranean win, as Hirvonen settled for second.
But how the Finn needs those two additional points now. A three-point advantage going into the curtain-call event would alter the championship picture. Second would secure a title win. Despite winning three fewer rallies than Loeb, even if the Frenchman wins in Wales, the drivers' title would be Hirvonen's. Team decisions, as always, make or break championship aspirations. Dani Sordo, Loeb's Citroen team-mate, played his No 2 role to perfection last weekend. The Spaniard slowed down to let his title-chasing partner claim a win that restored his contender status.
Immediately after winning a fifth Catalonia crown , the Frenchman recognised Sordo's selfless act of goodwill. "It was very important for the team and also for me and the drivers' championship to close the gap with Mikko," said Loeb. "I was five points behind and now I am one. So I have to say thank you to the team and Dani. I needed him to help and he has done the perfect rally. He has given up his own rally and that must be difficult to accept. So, thank you, Dani. I hope we can do something nice on the next rally."
Citroen's fourth consecutive one-two finish in Spain also secured a second straight manufacturers' title, and Loeb - who alongside Sordo has been confirmed in the 2010 team - admitted his teammate will be a title challenger himself next year. "He was really fast. For sure next year, he will be fast everywhere," said Loeb. First, however, comes Wales. Returning to his favoured gravel surface will buoy Hirvonen, while Loeb will be looking to repeat his win in last season's corresponding race. Hirvonen, who triumphed in the season finale two years ago, is upbeat.
"All I can think about now is going to Great Britain for the final round," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it because it should be a fantastic weekend. Whoever finishes highest between myself and Loeb will take the title, and what an exciting way to end the season that will be" firstname.lastname@example.org