WRC, Rallye de France
While Sébastien Ogier took a little more than four kilometres to become World Rally Champion for the first time, nine-time title winner Sébastien Loeb reckoned it would have taken 400 spectators to haul his stricken Citroën back onto the road, such were the French drivers’ contrasting fortunes on Rallye de France at the start of October.
Ogier, Loeb’s arch-rival and former Citroën understudy, began the event in Loeb’s native Alsace needing a solitary point or for closest challenger Thierry Neuville to fail to win the event-opening Power Stage, which awarded bonus points to the fastest three. When Dani Sordo posted the quickest time through the street course in Strasbourg, Ogier was champion, although it took a short delay for the information to reach the Volkswagen driver as he waited to start the stage. A radio fault meant his team had to resort to a text message, which simply read ‘CHAMPIONS’. Loeb’s nine-year reign as WRC king was over.
With the world title secured, Ogier admitted he found it hard to focus when the rally resumed on Friday morning, while his efforts to recover lost time in the afternoon were hampered after he opted for wet-weather tyres in what turned out to be dry conditions. Neuville, however, got the call just right and completed day one in the lead for the privateer M-Sport team, almost half a minute ahead of Ogier.
But the Belgian’s lead wouldn’t last, thanks to a puncture on Saturday afternoon while he was seemingly in control. With Neuville’s hopes of a maiden WRC victory in tatters, attentions turned to Ogier and his charge back up the order. By winning five of Saturday’s seven stages, the 29-year-old completed the penultimate leg 1.5sec down on team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and ready to pounce for a seventh victory of 2013.
Loeb, meanwhile, was contesting his 168th and final WRC event before he switches to the World Touring Car Championship for 2014 with Citroën. Having struggled through the Strasbourg street course on his first competitive run in a World Rally Car since early May, the 39-year-old made amends on Friday, fighting back into contention by locking out the stage wins in the morning before adding his 900th WRC stage conquest to his bulging list of accolades on Saturday.
He started the final day in fourth overall, albeit a mere five seconds adrift of Latvala, such was the close nature of the lead battle on this rain-hit event. But after making the rarest of rare errors, Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena were out barely a mile into Sunday’s opening stage.
Loeb’s bid for a record-extending 79th victory was over – together with his WRC reign – and he registered only the 21st retirement of a magnificent career.
“I lost the rear in a fast right corner, we had a spin and finished in the ditch,” Loeb said afterwards. “We didn’t really try to put the car back onto the road because we would have needed 400 spectators and there were none. Of course I would prefer to finish in a better way, but that’s life. It’s more difficult for Daniel because he finishes his last rally with his office on its roof.”
There were no such problems for Ogier on Sunday’s first stage, which he won to build a lead he would not relinquish.
At the finish in Loeb’s hometown of Haguenau, France celebrated a new world champion, as the local hero bid farewell with a parade through the street stage in an open-top car.
With Loeb starting a new career in the WTCC from 2014, Ogier is destined to become the WRC’s new benchmark. Richard Rodgers