A tactical decision made on Saturday night almost went wrong for Citroen and Sebastien Loeb in today's final leg of Rally NZ.
It was a tactical ploy made yesterday to give world champion Sebastien Loeb a swept road, but as things played out on the roads near Raglan today, it almost cost him the Repco Rally New Zealand victory.
We’re talking about the decision that saw Loeb slow near the end of Saturday’s final special stage, handing the Leg Two win and the rally lead to Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala.
The theory was that Loeb would be able to use the better road position to get past Latvala who was “sweeping” the road surfaces of loose gravel.
Loeb started the day with Ford’s other driver Mikko Hirvonen between him and leader Latvala.
He sprang out of the start of the Te Hutewai stage this morning with one idea in mind, overtaking the Fords.
But Loeb made an uncharacteristic mistake and spun, losing 10 seconds.
By the stage end, Loeb was fourth, 17.7 seconds behind Latvala, and 10.2 adrift of Hirvonen. Dani Sordo in the second Citroen was third.
Hirvonen led by the end of the next test, Whaanga Coast, and Loeb had shaved only 2.4 seconds off the margin between them – on a 29 kilometre stage. Pinning back the 15 seconds was looking like an impossibility.
Loeb was still fourth and 15.3 seconds behind Hirvonen when they went into Whaanga Coast for the second time, and he was thinking he now had no chance to go for the win.
But then Latvala crashed out and 9.5km from the end of Whaanga Coast Hirvonen spun after a slowly-deflating rear tyre went flat, and limped out of the stage.
Loeb came through the test with a 41.8-second lead, and the rally win was his. All that was left was to complete the super special at Mystery Creek – in the circumstances, little more than a formality.
“It was an incredible finish,” he said. “This morning I was in a good position to try to fight for the win.
“I tried hard from (the stage) start and I made a mistake, spun and lost 10 seconds. I tried even harder later in the morning but I couldn’t do anything against Mikko.
“At service we tried to change the car (set-up) a bit, and I tried in the second pass (through the two stages).
“The idea was to beat (Latvala). I didn’t think I would be able to get Hirvonen,
“Then Jari-Matti went off the road and I said: ‘maybe Mikko is now under pressure.’
“It is difficult to be the first car on the road, but finally he got the puncture and luckily we won.
“I had been pushing hard, trying to put the pressure on, but I knew I couldn’t be 15 seconds faster than him.
“But in his situation it is sometimes not easy to be leading, (even by) 15 seconds when you know the person behind is pushing hard.”
Loeb said he had tried hard all day. “Maybe a bit too hard in one place (in the day’s first stage). I was surprised I lost control of the car. I got too much sideways and had a spin.”
Looking back at the tactics employed on Saturday night, Loeb said he wasn’t sure now that it was “the right tactic for me.”
As things unfolded today, “maybe I couldn’t win with so big a (time) difference, but yesterday we thought that tactic was the right thing to do.”
But Loeb is no fan of tactics which the teams use on gravel rallies to give their drivers the best chance of a swept road on the rally’s final day.
“It’s not good for rallying. For people who are not rally fans it makes it difficult to understand why it’s always a question of tactics.
“I think it’s time to have another regulation that will mean good fight on all days.”
His co-driver Daniel Elena was blunter. “The regulations (which require the rally leader to run as first car on each day; previously the cars ran in reversed order with the top three starting at the rear of the top 15) are completely wrong.
“I prefer the fight like last year with Marcus Gronholm (last year the rally used the reversed seeding format for days two and three).
“I would prefer to fight for three days, better for everybody to battle for three days.
“Strategy is shit.”