Citroen's Sebastien Loeb produces a Rally New Zealand masterclass to move within striking distance of Sebastien Ogier, the leader.
Loeb carries on hot streak
After starting the day in seventh place and more than a minute behind after a costly mistake, Citroen's Sebastien Loeb produced a Rally New Zealand masterclass yesterday to move within striking distance of Sebastien Ogier, the leader. The French duo are teammates, namesakes and compatriots, but six consecutive gravel-stage victories proved that Loeb, the six-times world champion, has lost none of his speed
In recouping 75 seconds from Ogier's seemingly unassailable overnight lead, Loeb's blistering pace catapulted him to just 5.3secs behind. With four loose surface tests covering 81 competitive kilometres closing out proceedings today, Loeb is favoured to triumph for the fourth successive rally and extend his lead at the top of the championship. Already regarded as the best in the world, the Frenchman's display wowed the World Rally Championship fraternity and earned tributes from teammates and rivals alike.
"For sure his road position helped him but he was very fast and did some very good times. It was quite incredible," said Ogier, who stands to win his first world championship rally if he can keep Loeb at bay. Having seen his long-time adversary breeze past him on the first loop of the 30.9km Te Akau Coast stage, BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen, who lost out on the world drivers' title to Loeb last year and in 2008, said: "He has been quite amazing, really unbelievable."
Hirvonen's Ford teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala, currently third overall, was even more gracious. "His speed has been from another planet." With his teams' hopes and drivers' confidences battered by Loeb's ruthless performance, Malcolm Wilson, the Ford team director, could not mask his amazement. "I felt he could get onto the podium but what he's done today has been quite staggering," he said. Loeb's pursuit of an unprecedented seventh world title is becoming more wistful stroll than marathon.
The form he showed through Te Akau, however, was not just his best achievement of this term, but perhaps any. Running fifth on the road on what was the 12th stage of the event, Hirvonen, second-fastest through stage, was a mammoth 22 seconds behind Loeb. His Citroen teammate Dani Sordo, in the same specification car, was 30 seconds slower. . Loeb conceded the drive had been the best of his career.
"I am really happy because I couldn't do any better," he said. "It has been an incredible day, flat-out from the start to the end and now we've made up the gap to first place. I have been flying and everything is possible. " According to Latvala, only the urge to preserve their places might stop Loeb's rivals from taking any risks. "I think 30 seconds is too much to take back," said the Finn. "My priority is to hold onto third and anything else will be a bonus. The final day's stages are notoriously demanding so I don't want to risk what I have."
* Compiled by Euan Megson