x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Loeb on verge of title

Mikko Hirvonen held on to the Rally of Japan lead yesterday, but conceded his world championship bid is virtually over.

France's Sebastien Loeb drives his Citreon C4 during the Rally of Japan yesterday.
France's Sebastien Loeb drives his Citreon C4 during the Rally of Japan yesterday.

Mikko Hirvonen held on to the Rally of Japan lead yesterday, but conceded his world championship bid is virtually over after his title rival Sebastien Loeb remained on course for the crown after holding on to third place. The Finnish driver ended the second day in Sapporo 15.5secs ahead of his BP-Ford Abu Dhabi teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, who has a 38secs advantage over the Citroen of Loeb.

But Loeb only needs to finish third to claim the title regardless of Hirvonen's finish and the Frenchman crucially sits 2mins 26secs ahead of fourth placed Chris Atkinson. Hirvonen started the day with a 26.2sec lead, but saw his advantage trimmed after swiping a fence with the rear of his Focus RS WRC on the opening stage. He avoided problems on the remaining three stages to end the morning with a 16.9sec lead over Latvala and, despite deteriorating conditions, Hirvonen won two afternoon stages to extend his lead before Latvala responded in to again cut the lead.

"It was quite a nerve-racking day," said Hirvonen. "The roads were much faster and it took a while for me to get used to that after the narrow, twisty stages yesterday. "This afternoon there were ruts everywhere but I couldn't afford to ease my pace too much. The conditions were difficult and Jari-Matti drove quickly behind me. "I came to Japan looking for a victory but even if I achieve that, it looks like that won't help my championship challenge now."

After consolidating his third place with just one day remaining, Loeb knows he is just under 100km away from the world title. "It's no secret that I prefer competing to win rallies," said Loeb. "Today, though, it was necessary to keep a cool head. The stages were faster, today, which meant we ran a higher risk of making a mistake. "Whenever I felt that the conditions were a little too treacherous, I didn't hesitate to brake earlier than normal. There's a great deal at stake here and I didn't want it risk throwing it all away; we just tried to stay focused on our objective which was to consolidate our third place, and I think we succeeded quite well.

"There is a little less than 100km of stages to come tomorrow. The goal we are aiming for is within reach, but we will need to stay concentrated until the very end." @Email:sports@thenational.ae