x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

French maestro reigns supreme

After all the talk, the much-hyped WRC title fight turned out to be as wet as the Welsh weather.

After all the talk, the much-hyped WRC title fight turned out to be as wet as the Welsh weather. There were no ascensions, no successions. Instead, normality resumed at Rally Great Britain. The champion of champions Sebastien Loeb displayed the type of divine control and regal grace that made him a long-term ruler in the first place. The pretender Mikko Hirvonen simply failed to deliver when it mattered.

While Loeb's sixth consecutive world title will not be remembered as his easiest, the Citroen driver - the most successful in rallying history - made it all look alarmingly routine. Loeb breaks records and sets new ones almost every time he gets in the car. Put simply, he is the best - rally's king. As the warring rulers of military history did before him, Loeb dominated when it mattered - he commanded throughout the season finale. When he returned to the service park yesterday afternoon - the title won, his car muddied and battle-worn - he did so having led the high pressure decider since the end of Friday's second stage.

He did not win a single stage on the final day. He did not need to. Two days of perfect driving in often treacherous forest conditions meant Hirvonen was the pursuer. The flimsy flapping of a loose bonnet - which forced Hirvonen to halt his charge during the event's penultimate stage - provided a fitting metaphor. The Finn had not read the script for what should have been a gripping showdown. In truth, Loeb's title conquest should have been confirmed much earlier. Having won the first five rallies of the year, the Frenchman's march to a sixth crown seemed unstoppable. The king's hunger remained, his appetite to win in all territories apparently all-consuming.

But Hirvonen, Loeb's Ford rival and the would-be successor to his throne, capitalised during the champion's strange mid-season slump. For a moment, it looked like Hirvonen's consistency might topple a dynasty. Forged on pure speed, the Ford man's sublime victory in Finland came with Loeb in hot pursuit. The Frenchman, for once, could not catch up. It was supposed be a turning point; Hirvonen notched his third win on the trot and stretched the points gap to three - with three rallies to go. A title dream was conceived in Javaskyla.

Inevitably the king upped his game. A controversial time penalty denied Loeb a win in Australia. Having destroyed his opponent for three days, the stewards demoted Loeb to second and Hirvonen's lead grew to five points. Loeb gobbled back four of them on the tarmac tracks of Spain, the penultimate round, to set up a flat-out race for the title in Wales. But there was only ever going to be one winner. King's are generally not in the habit of surrendering their crowns.

Hirvonen may have complicated the championship plot by winning several key battles along the way, but Loeb - always eyeing the ultimate prize - won the war. The fact Hirvonen is rallying's only genuine heir to Loeb's crown, however, does not represent healthy competition. The 29-year-old Finn's consistent finishes may have built a solid case for forced abdication. But the figures show he has won three fewer rallies than Loeb this year.

Indeed, had Hirvonen won in Wales and usurped Loeb to secure a maiden title, he would have done so by topping the podium once less than rally's divine ruler. As it was, the king reigned supreme. Only one man can stop Loeb, and that is Loeb. The king lives, long live the king. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae