Loeb steers safe course to keep title
As Sebastien Loeb climbed atop his Citroen C4 at the end of the Trawscoed stage in mid Wales to celebrate his fourth successive World title, Marcus Gronholm could only look on and reflect: "We lost the title in Ireland."
It was his accident on the wet and slippery tarmac of Rally Ireland a fortnight ago that turned the championship on its head, Gronholm's four-point lead becoming a six-point deficit.
It meant that Rally Ireland winner Loeb needed only to steer a safe course through the Welsh forests of Rally GB to remain champion.
And he did it with his usual calm control, mastering the waterlogged gravel tracks and (at times) navigating through the blinding fog to a third place which sees him emulate Tommi Makinen as a four-time champion.
Makinen's fellow Finn Gronholm had dreamed of ending his WRC career with a third World title but after Ireland it was always in Loeb's hands and the 33-year-old from Alsace was in the mood to celebrate as he reached the end of the last stage of the last round.
"To win four championships in a row is incredible, amazing," he said, climbing down off the bonnet of his Citroen. "But this has been the hardest of them all. It has been a big, big fight with Marcus.
"We have both made mistakes this year - like in Japan - but when he crashed in Ireland I knew I had to take my chance. That was an important win for me and allowed me to be careful on this rally.
"It wasn't fun because, when you are not driving to the maximum, not fighting for positions, it is hard to find a rhythm. But we are here and it is a good feeling now."
Gronholm could only wait and hope for the Loeb mistake that never came, tracking steadily behind his BP Ford team-mate Mikko Hirvonen who recorded his first Rally GB win and his third of the season.
The 27-year-old Finn will assume Gronholm's No.1 position at Ford next season, charged with carrying the battle to Loeb and Citroen, and he declared: "I'm ready for it."
However, Hirvonen almost started celebrating his victory too soon and finished the final stage with damage to the front of his Focus.
"We went off, and I didn't plan it," Hirvonen joked, a reference to the fact that he knew he might have to hand the win to Gronholm if the World title positions dictated it.
But he added: "This season has been absolutely fantastic for me, and finishing it like this is the best preparation for next year."
His new team-mate next season is likely to be Jari-Matti Latvala who, although he finished only 10th, dominated the final two days of the rally, setting fastest times on every forest stag after losing over 10 minutes when the wipers of his Stobart Ford broke in torrential rain on the final Friday night stage and he went off the roade.
Petter Solberg salvaged fourth place for Subaru ahead of the second Citroen of Dani Sordo and there was a best-ever WRC finish for 19-year-old Matthew Wilson and his Ulster co-driver Michael Orr in sixth place in their Focus from the satellite Stobart Ford team.
Meanwhile Guy Wilks, who was the top privateer in sixth place on Rally Ireland, followed up with a double success on Rally GB - winner of the Production World championship category and victory in the British championship as well with his Group N Mitsubishi in 13th place overall.
Of the handful of Irish drivers taking part, 18-year-old Jonny Greer, from Carryduff, was the best in 47th place in a Group N Mitsubishi.
WALES RALLY GB RESULTS: 1 Mikko Hirvonen (Ford Focus) 3 hrs 22 mins 50.92 secs; 2 Marcus Gronholm (Ford Focus) + 15.2 secs; 3 Sebastien Loeb (Citroen C4) + 1 min 33.0 secs; 4 Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza) + 2 min 57.3 secs; 5 Dani Sordo (Citroen C4) + 3 mins 14.3 secs; 6 Matthew Wilson (Ford Focus) + 7 mins 32.9 secs; 7 Chris Atkinson (Subaru Impreza) + 8 mins 29.5 secs; 8 Manfred Stohl (Citroen Xsara) + 8 mins 54.6 secs; 9 Xavier Pons (Subaru Impreza) + 9 mins 48.8 secs; 10 Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford Focus) + 9 mins 52.4 secs.