Sébastien Loeb continued his dominance of the World Rally Championship this weekend, producing another stunning performance to win Rally Finland for the third time.
Chased throughout the race by their team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, Seb and his co-driver Daniel Elena won what was also the 500th event in the FIA World Rally Championship. This fifth one-two finish of the year meant the Citroën Total World Rally Team and its crews moved a little further ahead in the Manufacturers' and Drivers' championship standings.
Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena led from start to finish, showing no shortage of flair in going for a win that they didn't really need in terms of the championship standings. Leading by five seconds at the start of the long final day, the eight-time World Champions were just as determined to win as their team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. The day featured three parts; after two runs on a loop of two stages, Surkee and Leustu, the competitors were then faced with two runs on the famous 33km-long Ouninpohja test.
Mikko gave himself a fright when he clipped an old tree stump in a narrow section right at the start of SS13. Believing – wrongly as it turned out – he had picked up a puncture, the Finn lost a few precious seconds. On the next stage, Sébastien experienced similar feelings to those of his team-mate: "I didn't hit anything, but it felt like the rear of the car was sliding around a lot. In actual fact, it was just a change in grip that I had misinterpreted. At times like this, when the battle is really intense, a lot of stuff goes on in your head…" This loop had nonetheless enabled the eight-time World Champion to extend his lead to 7.4s. The tussle continued on the second runs, as Seb grabbed another couple of seconds.
The dream of the hundreds of thousands of fans watching the rally – a fight for victory over the Ouninpohja jumps – was therefore set to come true! In front of the TV cameras broadcasting the stage live, Loeb and Hirvonen fought tooth and nail, the two drivers taking it in turns to steal a few tenths at each split. At the stop control for SS17, Mikko had made up 2.2s on Seb. Although he had cut Seb's lead to 7.2s, the Jyväskylä driver admitted that it was unlikely that his team-mate would let this round slip.
The second run also served as the Power Stage, bonus points being awarded for the best three times. Just like the rest of the rally, the Citroën drivers were very strong. Mikko pushed hard every inch of the way to set the best time with 15:17.3. With an average speed of 129.54kph, he beat Petter Solberg's record that had stood since 2004. "I came to win and so I'm obviously a little bit disappointed to finish second," admitted Mikko. "I tried everything. I drove ‘flat out' for three days but Sébastien was just faster. I'd like to thank Citroën for letting us race each other freely and I'm proud to be involved in securing this fifth one-two finish for the team."
"I am really pleased to have clinched this third win here against a competitor as tenacious as Mikko," said Sébastien Loeb, third in the Power Stage and overall winner by 6.1s. "It's especially pleasing to have led the rally from start to finish. We pushed a lot, sometimes driving close to the limit. To drive like that, you need to have a car which you can have total faith in. The upgrades made this weekend to the DS3 WRC, especially on the shock absorbers, enabled us to move up another notch in terms of performance and how easy the car was to drive. I'd also like to thank Michelin – its Latitude Cross soft tyres were fast, durable, and hard wearing."
"I'd like to congratulate and thank our crews: we knew we were taking a risk in letting them fight it out like that, but they proved worthy of our trust by keeping the cars on the road… and in the top two places," emphasised Frédéric Banzet, Citroën General Manager. "This team has shown once again that it is the best in the world; this fifth one-two finish in eight rallies shows the progress we are making and we are determined to keep the run going at the last five rallies of the season, which are due to be held in countries that are important for the Brand."