The win, the French crews’ second at Rally Finland, was rounded off by Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia finishing third.
With two Citroën DS3 WRCs on the podium, the Citroën Total World Rally Team has consolidated first place in the Manufacturers’ World Championship, while Loeb increased his lead in the Drivers’ Championship to 27 points.
Three crews broke away from the pack in the first two days, as Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier fought with Finn Jari-Matti Latvala driving for Ford.
Having taken an early lead, the seven-time world champion was first on the road but was afraid he would meet conditions less favorable than those faced by his direct rivals behind him. So Loeb decided that attack was the best form of defence and tried to open a gap on roads that were still damp from the morning dew.
In Leustu 1 (SS12), for example, Loeb stunned his rivals, beating Ogier by 6.4sec and Latvala by 10.7sec in 21,35km. “I was on the limit everywhere. I drove my heart out,” he gasped.
On the next stage, Loeb underlined his determination by setting another fastest time. Despite this, Ogier wasn’t giving up: “It’s not over yet. I’m going to keep pushing. The gap’s only ten seconds, and Latvala’s not far behind.”
Loeb continued to push hard and, despite increasingly difficult conditions, he managed to hold on to first place and take the victory in the country of a 1000 Lakes. He still remains the first non-Finn to achieve such a performance.
The win in Finland marks Loeb’s fourth win of the season and has also helped Citroën reach another record-breaking landmark of seven consecutive wins in a season.
The seven-time world champion now has 66 WRC victories with Citroën since the 2002 season. “It’s one of the greatest wins of my career,” said Loeb. “But I had to work for it and it took a long time before it took shape. Sometimes you have to go beyond the limits to open the gap. I felt really good on the roads with the Citroën DS3 WRC, even more so than in the past with the Xsara or the C4. My aim was to lead the world championship before the tarmac rounds. I’ve achieved it, but there are still a lot of points up for grabs.”
Ogier’s hopes of victory were punctured in SS17 when he suffered a flat tire. The former Junior World Champion finished on the podium behind Jari-Matti Latvala and 12.8sec behind the winner. “It was all going pretty well until the last loop. We were in a good position to push for victory until we punctured. I feel frustrated because it was a racing incident that ruined our chances.”
For Finnish crew Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, it was three days of enthralling competition for the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, finishing just 8.1sec behind the winners
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen in an identical Ford Fiesta RS WRC staged a superb recovery to finish fourth after losing two minutes when they hit a tree in Thursday evening's opening speed test.
Hirvonen's fightback brought him to within 69.1sec of the winner after the 30 year-old Finn reeled off a string of special stage wins. He remains second in the drivers' standings.
Hirvonen won five of Friday's eight speed tests and added a further eight wins from Sunday's 11 stages, including fastest time in the live TV Power Stage, which earned three bonus points in the drivers' championship.
Latvala won two tests as the Ford Abu Dhabi team topped the time charts in 15 of the 22 stages, covering 314.39km around the rally base of Jyväskylä and Lahti.
Rally Finland is the fastest round of the year and the smooth, wide gravel tracks and stomach-churning jumps provided some of the most spectacular action of the season. However, the opening two legs ended in tactics more frequently seen on a chessboard, as drivers measured their pace and jockeyed for position to find the most favorable road position for the following leg.
When the strategy ended, 26 year-old Latvala started Sunday's final leg in third, just 2.6sec from the lead and seemingly in the best start position of the leading trio. However, the dry, dusty roads of the previous two days gave way to damper conditions, and the advantage in the start order turned against Latvala and in favor of the two Citroen drivers ahead.
The gap to the lead widened to 20sec and a frustrated Latvala explained: "The humidity was so high last night that all the roads were damp. The moisture bound together the loose gravel and the cars ahead didn't have to sweep the dirt off the surface as we expected. Our road position wasn't the advantage we thought it would be. First in the order turned out to be best because it offered the most traction."
The roads dried during the second pass that afternoon and Latvala, aided by some minor changes to the settings in his car's rear differential, began to reel in leader Loeb and second-placed Ogier. He moved ahead of Ogier, but fell short of catching Loeb.
"I was closing on the lead all the time but ran out of kilometers. Just two more stages would have been enough. I drove badly this morning when the car didn't perform but I realized that I needed to change the differential, and then everything came together. Unfortunately it was too late," added Latvala.
Hirvonen's rally was compromised when he slid wide into a tree on the opening stage, damaging his brakes and suspension He refocused on winning as many stages as possible, climbing as far up the leader board as he could. After starting Saturday in 36th, he powered up to sixth and gained another two positions on Sunday.
"I'm disappointed not to win," he said. "My fightback was good and I had great speed all weekend, which makes it even more of a shame I wasn't able to fight for victory I have to thank the fans who gave me great support I love my home event and I enjoyed driving in front of them."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 14th in the team's third Fiesta RS WRC. "Yesterday I wasn't so happy, but today was better and I'm glad to have finished with a good pace and no risks," said Al Qassimi.
The Mini WRC Team cannot pretend to be satisfied that neither of its John Cooper Works WRC cars made it to the end of Neste Oil Rally Finland, but this doesn't mean it had been an unsuccessful outing.
The first retirement was by car #52 of Kris Meeke (GB) and Paul Nagle (IR) after 19 of the 22 stages, while Dani Sordo (ES) and Carlos del Barrio (ES) only missed out on the very last stage. Both retirements were precautionary after sand and dirt was sucked into the cooling system, which could have caused engine damage.
The problems started on stage 17, Leustu 2, when Meeke suffered from a puncture and then overheating. At that stage he had been lying ninth, but the loss of90sec to the leaders dropped him to 14th.
On the next stage, Surkee 2, Sordo was seventh but also had problems with sand blocking the air intake and lost 45 seconds to the leaders. The team's engineers knew they would learn nothing more from cars limping through stages, although Sordo was able to go quicker than Meeke.
After Urria 2, the team decided to retire Meeke's car, and after Isojärvi 2 Sordo was told to drive back to Jyväskylä and not attempt the Power Stage to avoid engine damage.
After a string of loose surface rallies, next month's Rallye Deutschland marks the opening asphalt round of the season. The rally is based in Trier on 19-21 August.
|1.||S Loeb/D Elena||FRA||Citroen DS3||2hr 39min 37.0sec|
|2.||J-M Latvala/M Anttila||FIN||Ford Fiesta RS||2hr 39min 45.1sec|
|3.||S Ogier/J Ingrassia||FRA||Citroen DS3||2hr 39min 49.8sec|
|4.||M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen||FIN||Ford Fiesta RS||2hr 40min 46.1sec|
|5.||P Solberg/C Patterson||NOR||Citroen DS3||2hr 40min 53.2sec|
|6.||M Østberg/J Andersson||NOR||Ford Fiesta RS||2hr 41min 04.8sec|
|7.||H Solberg/I Minor||NOR||Ford Fiesta RS||2hr 43min 02.5sec|
|8.||M Wilson/S Martin||GBR||Ford Fiesta RS||2hr 43min 30.2sec|
|9.||K Räikkönen/K Lindström||FIN||Citroen DS3||2hr 43min 36.8sec|
|10.||J Hanninen/M Markkula||FIN||Skoda Fabia S2000||2hr 44min 50.7sec|
|2.||Ford Abu Dhabi||225pts|
|3.||M-Sport Stobart Ford||101pts|
|5.||Ice 1 Racing||38pts|