Despite failing to win any of Rally New Zealand's 21 special stages, Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala won the fifth round of the championship.
Loeb's pain is gain for Latvala
Six consecutive world titles have left Sebastien Loeb's World Rally Championship (WRC) rivals scratching their heads at how best to stop the all-conquering Citroen driver. Consistency - as evidenced by BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen last year when he finished on the podium in all but one of the 12 rounds and still lost the championship to Loeb - is the only way to combat rallying's king of speed.
Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala repeated the safety-first trick yesterday to great aplomb. Despite failing to win any of Rally New Zealand's 21 special stages, Latvala won the fifth round of the championship yesterday after Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, the Citroen Junior driver, both made mistakes which lost them time. Loeb, who had started Saturday's second day 1min 40secs off the lead, produced one of the WRC's most memorable performances as he won all six gravel tests to recoup 75 seconds in lost time.
He began yesterday five seconds behind Ogier, and took the lead on the opening stage, but it went wrong on stage 19 as he spun, losing 50 seconds in the process. "I went off the road, that's it," said the Frenchman, who had to settle for third as a result of the spin. "It was a long right-hander about 3km from the end. There was more gravel than I expected and the car started to under-steer and I could not stop."
It then appeared as if it was Ogier's rally to win, with the French driver set for his first success in the WRC. But on the final stage he spun three corners from the end of the event, and though he was quick to recover, he lost out to Latvala by 2.8secs to gift the Finnish driver the third triumph of his career. A thrilled Latvala said: "I didn't think it could happen; it's the most amazing and beautiful win."
"Whaanga Coast showed its teeth. I neared the end of the stage and could see a car's bumper on the road but I didn't know which car it was from. I didn't know we had won until three minutes after the finish of the stage and Miikka [Anttila, Latvala's co-driver] did the calculations. "It's my best win and makes up for my disappointments." The win promotes Latvala to second in the drivers' standings on 72 points. Although he remains 36 points adrift of Loeb, the 25-year-old is content with his best start to a WRC season. "I can't believe I'm second in the championship," he added. "I wasn't the fastest here but I was the most consistent and that paid off when it mattered."
Hirvonen, Latvala's teammate, had an improved final day to move up two places in the standings to finish fourth, ahead of the second factory Citroen car of Dani Sordo. Petter Solberg, the Citroen privateer who had led after the first day, crashed out on stage 19 when lying third in the standings. Having cut Citroen's manufacturers' lead to a meagre five points on the back of Latvala's success, Malcolm Wilson, the Ford director, saluted his teams' efforts. "This sport has a habit of producing the unexpected," said Wilson. "Jari-Matti displayed great maturity. We've worked hard with him to develop greater consistency and maturity, and he showed how far he has progressed.
"It just goes to show it's never over until the fat lady sings." The next round of the championship is in Portugal between May 28 and 30. * Compiled by Euan Megson