Champion Loeb is too hot to handle on icy roads
It was like a skier trying to out-run an advancing avalanche.
And Jari-Matti Latvala was inevitably crushed by the on-rushing Sebastien Loeb in the final moments of Wales Rally GB.
But what a dramatic, nail-biting finish it turned out to be with the World champion snatching victory – a record 11th of the season – by just two seconds on the last of the 19 stages in the frozen Welsh forests.
Even a disputed 10-second penalty on the penultimate stage couldn’t deny Loeb his 47th career win, another record.
In atrocious conditions of rain, fog and ice, he had played a cagey game, tracking the Ford Focus of Latvala and maintaining that his priority was to ensure Citroen clinched the manufacturers’ World championship.
But with Latvala’s team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen, out of reckoning after rolling his Focus and the No.2 Citroen C4 of Dani Sordo solidly in third place, Loeb was finally given the green light to go for the win yesterday morning.
Latvala had led most of the way despite having to run first on the ice-bound roads. But it was indoors, inside the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, that he faltered. The clutch of his Focus overheated in the traffic jam around the stadium and he had to nurse the car through the Saturday night superspecial, dropping five seconds to the flying Loeb.
It left the young Finn with just a seven second advantage starting the final leg yesterday and with Loeb freed from his team duties, the writing appeared to be on the wall. The French maestro reduced that gap to less than one-and-a-half seconds on the treacherous loop and then appeared to leap ahead with a spectacular time on the penultimate stage – only to discover he had incurred a jump start penalty, putting him 2.2 seconds behind Latvala again.
"This one was really incredible," he said afterwards. "I didn't like it (the rally), it was very tricky with the ice and no gravel crew, so I was not happy all weekend. But it was a very exciting to fight with Jari-Matti. And I am happy now!"
World motorcycle champion Valentino Rossi earned himself the Spirit of the Rally award with a dogged 12th place finish and Guy Wilks, in 14th, wrapped up the British championship.