What should have been the ultimate title showdown became a tale of two broken radiators when the fight for the 2011 World Rally Championship reached its climax on Wales Rally GB in mid-November.
Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb arrived in the principality eight points to the good in his quest for an eighth world crown. Mikko Hirvonen, conversely, had it all to do in his efforts to become the first Ford driver to claim title honours since Ari Vatanen 30 years ago.
Hirvonen not only had to win the rally, which covered a heavily revised route from Llandudno in the north of Wales to Cardiff in the south, he also had to claim as many bonus points as possible on the rally-closing Power Stage – which both drivers predicted before the start would decide the championship – to stand any chance of emulating his fellow Finn Vatanen.
In the event, neither made it that far, with Hirvonen spinning out of the lead on Friday’s third stage and Loeb being eliminated following a freak collision with a spectator’s car while embroiled in a scrap for first place with Hirvonen’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, who would take the victory.
Ordinarily Hirvonen’s spin into a bank would have merely added a few seconds to his total time. Instead, a protruding tree branch penetrated his Fiesta’s radiator. He limped through the run – albeit almost four minutes slower than Loeb – but the 60-mile road section to service in Builth Wells proved too much and Hirvonen was out.
Loeb had now won more FIA World Championships than Michael Schumacher, but the 37-year-old was keen for the champagne to stay on ice while he awaited Ford’s confirmation that the engine damage was too great to attempt a restart on Saturday.
Had a fix been achievable, Hirvonen would have had to reverse a deficit of gargantuan proportions to beat Loeb, but there would have been no better incentive for the driver six years Loeb’s junior early on Sunday morning.
Barely a mile into the road section heading to the final day’s second stage, Crychan, Loeb was out, his radiator broken following a head-on crash with two Spanish fans heading to the end of the previous stage to welcome their hero Dani Sordo.
Loeb had come over a brow on a narrow road to find the fans’ hire car heading straight towards him. He braked and moved to the left, only for the female driver to instinctively swerve to the right, confused by the direction of traffic flow.
“This rally has been the radiator story,” said Loeb. “We came here to win the title and we are still World Champions, so we can’t be disappointed.”
Had Hirvonen returned for the final two days then he would have doubtless made up enough time to capitalise on Loeb’s woe. While some have yearned for an end to Loeb’s dominance, there would have been a sense of injustice if he had lost the title on the back of his vintage campaign.
During a year when he’s frequently been forced to run first on the road on gravel events and accused Citroën of favouring its young star Sébastien Ogier, Loeb has been mighty. Had it not been for his three-event losing streak late in the season, Hirvonen would not have stood a chance, leaving few to begrudge Loeb’s eighth title.