x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Viva Loeb as Frenchman makes a point

The six-time world champion Citroen driver sends a powerful message with victory that puts him seven points ahead of Hirvonen.

Sebastien Loeb's Citroen is airborne on his way to victory in the Rally Mexico.
Sebastien Loeb's Citroen is airborne on his way to victory in the Rally Mexico.

It was a case of business as usual on Sunday night as Sebastien Loeb stood on top of his Citroen with co-driver Daniel Elena after winning the Rally Mexico. It was the 55th time that the Frenchman had come out on top in a World Rally Championship event, but for the six-time champion it was not just about securing his first win of the new season.

This victory was about setting the record straight and sending a powerful message to the rest of his rivals after he was fairly beaten by Mikko Hirvonen's BP Ford Abu Dhabi car in Sweden last month. And he achieved his triumph in emphatic fashion with a dominant display in Mexico as he finished 24.2 seconds ahead of the privateer Citroen of Petter Solberg and the Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier.

The result saw him take the championship lead by six points from Hirvonen, who could finish only fifth, and he said: "OK, it's only the start of the championship but I'm really happy. "We had a really good drive yesterday and a good feeling in the car. It's looking good." It was a typical masterclass from Loeb. Running second on Friday in difficult conditions, which were always going to favour later runners as a racing line formed in the dusty gravel tracks, he drove superbly to stay within touch of the early leader Solberg.

Then on Saturday, when he had a more favourable starting position, he simply blitzed the field to open up a lead of a minute, which allowed him to ease off on Sunday's final stages to clinch his fourth Rally Mexico win in succession. "I had a good lead and was not going to take any risks with that when I started first on the road," he said. "I was just breezing through the last couple of stages trying to keep my concentration.

"It's a good victory; I'm back in the lead of the championship and the points we lost in Sweden we've won back - that's important." Despite leading on Friday, Solberg was pleased with being runner-up after overcoming Ogier in a thrilling duel for the second spot on the podium. The Swedish driver trailed his French rival by six tenths of a second going into the 22nd and final stage of the event, but he was quicker by 1.1 seconds over the 4.42km route to gain second place.

"We got second and I'm very happy with that," he said as he celebrated his best result for two years. It was something of a surprise that Solberg had not deliberately slowed down late on Friday in an attempt to drop down the order and have a better start position on the second day, with his decision to remain at the front meaning he was unable to fight Loeb. Solberg explained some of the motivation for his strategy was of a commercial nature.

"I could have played a tactical game," he said. "But in the team we decided it was more important for us to show that we were leading a rally. "We're still looking for sponsors for this season, and to be ahead of everybody else sends a strong message. Anyway, I needed to learn how to be fast in this car when the road conditions weren't ideal." Ogier completed the top three, followed by the Ford pairing of Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, with Henning Solberg rounding out the top six in his Ford Stobart.

@Email:gcaygill@thenational.ae