Loeb in pole for a world title win
Sebastien Loeb gave a Rally Ireland master class to put himself in the driving seat to become World champion for a fourth successive year.
The 33-year-old French ace from Alsace stepped out of his mud-splattered Citroen C4 in windy and wet Mullaghmore yesterday afternoon, the winner by more than 50 seconds from his team-mate Dani Sordo.
But the big smile was one of relief as much as delight.
"It was a very difficult rally, incredible tricky," he said.
"For sure, I'm happy - happy to be here!"
The remote Mullaghmore, a little village north of Sligo, was the finishing line as well as the setting for the final stage of Ireland's first World championship rally, a classic Irish scene for a global television audience.
On any other day it would have been serene, but yesterday it was alive with throngs of spectators, VIPs, including ministers Margaret Ritchie and Mary Coughlan from the governments north and south, frenetic drummers, even fire dancers and Catherine wheels.
Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena looked slightly bemused to be presented with laurel wreaths with the official finishing point still 20 miles away in Sligo. But it was all for the television cameras.
But the relief at reaching the end of the rally, in Mullaghmore or Sligo, was clear. The World champion has rarely worked harder to win a rally, even though he had been at the front of the field from early Friday morning and by the evening his major rival for this year's title was already back home in Finland.
Marcus Gronholm's accident, on just the fourth stage, handed Loeb a glorious opportunity to reclaim the championship lead ahead of the final round of the series, Rally GB, at the end of the month. But he said that only increased the pressure.
"I could not afford to make another slip (he crashed in similar circumstances in Japan) and for sure this rally was one of the most difficult we've ever done, because it was very wet and the roads were very muddy. Incredibly tricky!" he said, his usually serious face breaking into a broad smile.
"But we managed to finish it and I've very happy. Ten points more for the championship is really important. That could change a lot of things for the championship. I don't have to win in GB now - second or third or fourth will do."
With Sordo finishing in a protective second place, shutting out the Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala (third) and Miko Hirvonen (fourth), the French maestro has a six points lead and his fourth successive title in his own hands.
But, having picked his way through the mud and the standing water, finding the perfect balance between speed and caution, Loeb did have one late scare when his C4 wouldn't start as he prepared to leave Sligo for the final leg yesterday morning.
The Citroen engineers scrambled to find the source of the problem, in the electrical system, and although they fixed it quickly, he was late through the departure control and incurred a 10-second penalty.
An unsettling moment but of no consequence in the end, the C4 performing perfectly on the stages from start to finish - just like its driver who announced he couldn't wait to come back to Ireland.
"I've been here three times this year and I have won three times. I love Ireland!"
Not everyone would agree with him. This rally proved a tough test for even the best in the world and Gronholm was far from the only driver to slip up, with Subaru's Chris Atkinson and Xavier Pons, Henning Solberg (Stobart Ford), Manfred Stohl (OMV Citroen) and Ulster's big hope, Kris Meeke - who had been third in the rally-opening super-special - all crashing before half-distance.
Sordo and Latvala were both in hedges, too, but were able to continue - aided by spectator power - without losing places.
Latvala, having missed his first podium finish by crashing out of third place in Japan, said he had to be "cool in the head" this time, but still went off the road.
And as his Stobart Focus rolled in off the coast road at Mullaghmore the 22-year-old Finn said: "I feel very good now, it's a big relief. Being third in these kind of difficult conditions, I'm more than happy."
However, Citroen's dominance, and Gronholm's early departure, wasn't enough to prevent Ford from clinching a second consecutive manufacturers' championship, Hirvonen playing his role perfectly to take a controlled fourth and secure the required points.
Petter Solberg took a quiet fifth for Subaru, finishing with the fastest time on the final stage but describing Ireland as "the most difficult rally I've ever done," before adding, "but quite enjoyable."
The works Subaru driver came home three minutes ahead of the top privateer, Guy Wilks, Meeke's old sparring partner from the JWRC, driving in the same DMG team S11 Impreza in which the Dungannon driver won the Ulster International.
"I'm more than happy with that," said Wilks, who scored the first WRC points of his career ahead of the second Stobart Ford of teenager Matthew Wilson (seventh) and the leading Irish driver, Gareth MacHale (eighth).