PHOTO: Fans line the road as Jari-Matti Latvala races to his first asphalt WRC victory (Volkswagen pic)
FINLAND’S Jari-Matti Latvala has kept the FIA World Rally Championship fight alive with a dream victory in the 11th round at Rally de Franc-Alsace on Sunday.
While the Volkswagen factory driver claimed an historic maiden win on a tarmac surface, current standings leader Sebastien Ogier, also driving for Volkswagen, finished only 13th and fell short of the goal to complete the defence of his current World Championship on his home rally.
Volkswagen number three Andreas Mikkelsen put in another strong drive to finish second, 44.8 seconds behind Latvala, while another of the season’s standout performers, Kris Meeke, was a further 20.5sec behind in a Citroen.
Coates Hire Rally Australia winner Ogier still holds a 27-point lead and can win the 2014 title by scoring one more point than teammate Latvala in the penultimate round, Rally of Spain, later this month.
But Latvala, encouraged by his weekend victory, remains focused on his own ambition of winning his first World Championship and says he’ll fight to keep the contest open until the final round in Wales next month.
“For years I have worked hard to win my first asphalt rally. Every rally driver dreams of winning on asphalt, gravel and snow and I am overjoyed to have finally achieved this milestone,” said Latvala, who was greeted at the end of the final stage by his legendary countryman and 1981 World Champion Ari Vatanen.
“The World Championship is still wide open and all WRC fans can look forward to an exciting Rally Spain.”
With its fast but narrow asphalt roads through thick forests and small villages, Rally France represented a genuine challenge for the teams. It was the fastest asphalt rally in WRC history, with an average speed of 115.07 kmh.
Latvala came close to breaking his asphalt curse in Germany in August but crashed out of the lead on the final morning. He made no mistakes in France, leading for all but one of the 18 special stages in a Volkswagen Polo R.
Formula 1 grand prix winner Robert Kubica was on course for a career-best fourth after demoting Dani Sordo on the final morning, but spun his Ford Fiesta RS into a ditch on the last stage. Sordo secured the place, his Hyundai i20 WRC 12.0sec ahead of M-Sport’s Mikko Hirvonen.
Elfyn Evans was sixth after a final-day duel with Mads Østberg ended when the Norwegian missed a pace note and went off the road briefly in the final stage. The gap between them was just 1.7sec.
Hyundai duo Thierry Neuville and Bryan Bouffier were eighth and ninth, with Martin Prokop completing the leaderboard.
Ogier took maximum bonus points by winning the rally-closing Power Stage, some consolation after a faulty gearbox sensor and a timing error effectively ruled him out of contention from the first day.
The mixed surface Rally RACC Rally de España is based in Salou on 23-26 October.
RESULTS, Rallye de France-Alsace (WRC Rd 11 of 13)
1. J-M Latvala/M Anttila (FIN/FIN), Volkswagen Total time 2h 38m 19.1s
2. A Mikkelsen/O Fløene (N/N), Volkswagen + 44.8s behind winner
3. K Meeke/P Nagle (GB/IRL), Citroën + 1m 05.3s
4. D Sordo/MaMartí (E/E), Hyundai + 1m 48.7s
5. M Hirvonen/JLehtinen (FIN/FIN), Ford + 2m 00.7s
6. E Evans/D Barritt (GB/GB), Ford + 3m 00.8s
7. M Østberg/J Andersson (N/S), Citroën + 3m 02.5s
8. T Neuville/NGilsoul (B/B), Hyundai + 4m 08.4s
9. B Bouffier/X Panseri (F/F), Hyundai + 4m 12.9s
10. M Prokop/J Tománek (CZ/CZ), Ford + 6m 07.5s
FIA Driver standings (after Rd 11)
1. S Ogier 217
2. J-MLatvala 190
3. A Mikkelsen 143
4. M Hirvonen 93
5. Th Neuville 83
6. K Meeke 82
7. M Østberg 80
8. E Evans 71
9. M Prokop 38
10. D Sordo 30
FIA Manufacturer standings (after Rd 11)
1. Volkswagen Motorsport 373
2. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT 175
3. M-Sport 164
4. Hyundai Motorsport 157
5. Volkswagen Motorsport II 127