(WRC.com release, 5/5/2013) SEBASTIEN Loeb has claimed an emotional eighth straight victory in Phillips LED Rally Argentina on what is likely to be the final gravel event in his extraordinary FIA World Rally Championship career.
The reigning world champion finished a punishing fifth round of the season on Saturday afternoon local time, 55.0 seconds ahead of Sebastien Ogier and ending his fellow Frenchman’s run of three straight wins.
Jari-Matti Latvala came third in another Polo R after a fierce final-day tussle with Ford Fiesta RS driver Evgeny Novikov.
Argentina was the last long-distance “flyaway” round of the WRC until Coates Hire Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 12-15 September.
While the teams return to Europe to tackle four rounds during their summer, much of the equipment and components used in Argentina will now be shipped directly to Australia, putting into irreversible train preparations for their return Down Under for Round 10.
Argentina marked Loeb’s 78th world rally win and almost certainly his last away from asphalt. He has won nine straight titles, more than any other driver in a four-wheel world championship.
The 39-year-old is tackling only four rallies this season as he switches to circuit racing and opted for Argentina as his sole gravel outing. His next and last scheduled event is Rally de France in October, in his home city of Alsace.
“It’s great emotion to win here,” Loeb said as fans surrounded his Citroen DS3 at the end of the final stage on Saturday afternoon near Carloz Paz.
“It was a tough rally with complicated stages, but there was a great atmosphere and it was great to feel that all weekend.
“After so many months since my last gravel rally it was difficult to find the feeling in the first stage and to get the car working for me, but it was the perfect drive.”
Such was the passion of Argentine fans to see Loeb’s farewell that an estimated 80,000 lined the final El Condor stage.
Ogier dominated the early part of the four-day, 14-stage event, winning five of the first six stages in his Volkswagen Polo R.
But he could not break Loeb and when the Polo went off the road for almost 40 seconds on Friday morning the Citroen veteran transformed a 17 second deficit into a lead.
After puncturing a front tyre on the next stage, Ogier throttled back in the knowledge that Loeb’s programme means he cannot be a contender for a 10th drivers’ title.
“It’s a good result for us. We had a lot of problems this weekend, but we’re happy to be at the end,” Ogier said.
“We’re still in a learning year and at the moment, after five events, it’s going well so I want to thank the team for all the work they’ve done.
“We had a few problems, even this morning, and I finished the rally with a car not really good, but still I managed to push and get extra points in the Power Stage.”
Ogier now leads the drivers’ standings by 54 points.
Jari-Matti Latvala’s battle with Evgeny Novikov showed his increasing mastery of the Polo R.
The Finn dropped almost two minutes on Friday with a puncture and started Saturday 8.2 seconds behind the Russian’s Ford Fiesta RS.
Latvala won all four stages, including the bonus point-paying Power Stage, and his podium was secured when Novikov spun early in the final stage.
Thierry Neuville finished fifth in another Fiesta RS, the Belgian constantly working to improve the set-up of his Fiesta RS.
Mikko Hirvonen had been second after Ogier’s problems, but a puncture followed by electrical troubles with his Citroen cost more than six minutes and he slipped to sixth.
In the WRC2 category, Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari survived a last-minute scare in his Ford Fiesta RRC to wrap up a convincing win and take the lead in the standings.
The Qatari, who took the category lead on stage two, began the final day of competition with a comfortable advantage of 10m30.7sec over the Group N Mitsubishi Lancer of Nicolas Fuchs.
Three consecutive stage wins on Saturday’s first three stages enabled Al-Kuwari and his Irish co-driver Killian Duffy to extend this to 13m19.6s by the end of the penultimate stage.
But all was not well with the handling of the Fiesta and what Kuwari first felt was a puncture turned out to be a broken rear chassis cross-member.
He gave away some of his advantage with a cautious approach through the rocky repeat of El Condor to take the win from Fuchs by 13m06.9s.
Greece’s legendary Acropolis Rally will be the next round of the FIA World Rally Championship, starting in Athens on 31 May.
RESULTS, Phillips LED Rally Argentina (WRC Rd 5)
1 S. Loeb/D. Elena (Citroen DS3)
2. S. Ogier/J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R) Gap to winner +55.0 sec.
3 J. Latvala./M. Anttila (Volkswagen) + 2:00.8
4 E. Novikov/I. Minor (Ford Fiesta RS) +2:36.7
5 T. Neuville/N. Gilsoul (Ford) + 4:40.5
6 M. Hirvonen/J. Lehtinen (Citroen) + 6:23.9
7 M. Ostberg/J. Andersson (Ford) +11:02.2
8 A. Mikkelsen/M. Markkula (Volkswagen) +13:22.1
9 D. Sordo/C. Del Barrio (Citroen) + 13:22.3
10 M. Prokop/M. Ernst (Ford) +14:07.6
Driver standings (after Rd 5)
1 Sebastien Ogier 122
2 Sebastien Loeb 68
3 Mikko Hirvonen 57
4 Jari-Matti Latvala 49
5 Mads Ostberg 38
Manufacturers standings (after Rd 5)
1 Volkswagen Motorsport 154
2 Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team 140
3 Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team 73
4 Qatar World Rally Team 46
5 Abu Dhabi Citroen Total World Rally Team 29