x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Loeb's victory sets up a thrilling finale

Sebastien Loeb's effortless victory in Rally Spain blew the World Rally Championship title race wide open.

Sebastien Loeb's effortless victory in Rally Spain blew the World Rally Championship title race wide open yesterday.
Sebastien Loeb's effortless victory in Rally Spain blew the World Rally Championship title race wide open yesterday.

Sebastien Loeb's effortless victory in Rally Spain blew the World Rally Championship title race wide open yesterday, as Citroen celebrated a one-two finish in the season's penultimate round to wrap up a second successive manufacturers' crown. Dani Sordo's second-place finish and Loeb's fifth consecutive win in Spain snared Citroen 18 manufacturers' points, handing the team an insurmountable 21-point lead ahead of Rally Great Britain in Wales - the WRC season finale.

Loeb's win moved him to within one point of BP Ford Abu Dhabi's championship leader Mikko Hirvonen, who finished a comfortable third. A sixth consecutive world title is now in sight for Loeb, who edged his Finnish title rival in Wales last year. A repeat performance would see the Frenchman retain the championship and strengthen his claim as rallying's greatest driver of all time. "This one was quite tough," said Loeb. "We knew we had to not make any mistakes because it was so important to finish."

Hirvonen was the only Ford driver in a top five dominated by Citroen. The Finn, however, is relishing the return to his preferred non-seal surface after finishing a less-favoured tarmac round with his lead intact. "Now it's all down to Great Britain, so that's going to be some rally," said Hirvonen. "I'm really looking forward to that fight. It's going to be a really fantastic weekend." Privateer Petter Solberg finished a credible fourth, and the Norwegian - a gravel specialist with skills to suit the muddy Welsh tracks expected in three weeks time - could play a deciding role in the championship's ultimate destination.

So could Hirvonen's Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, who won the event's last stage to prevent a Citroen clean-sweep of all 18 Rally Spain runs. Latvala finished sixth, more than 70 seconds behind Citroen Junior team driver Sebastien Ogier in fifth. Having started the final leg in 18th position, Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi climbed up to 14th, but was still left ruing an engine fire which forced his retirement on day one and incurred a 10-minute penalty.

"I am disappointed [about the fire], but I took back time wherever I could," said al Qassimi yesterday. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae