A HISTORIC WIN!
With the 79th victory of their amazing career after an incident-packed race, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena guided Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT back to winning ways, proving once again the value of a committed team that refused to give up.
The only previous occasion that Sébastien Loeb had successfully attempted a backflip on the final podium of a rally was back at the 2004 Tour de Corse to celebrate his first world title. The former gymnast repeated the feat yesterday, confirming the historic significance of this victory, claimed in the final guest appearance of his part-time return in 2018, six years after he contested his last full season in the WRC. Although he had won in Spain eight times running (between 2005 and 2012) before entering this year’s rally, he hadn’t competed at the event since 2012. However, his three stage wins in Mexico – where he also briefly held the overall lead – and another three fastest times in Corsica, suggested that he would be more or less on the pace.
Perfectly assisted by his faithful co-driver Daniel Elena, the nine-time world champion did better than more or less: once again showcasing his incredible ability to adapt to conditions, he gradually worked with the team to fine-tune the set-up of his C3 WRC, ending the opening leg on gravel in fourth place, just 0.5s behind the third-placed driver and 3.4s adrift of second position. In the process, he set an impressive third fastest time (+2.0s) and then a second-fastest time (+2.9s) on the decisive La Fatarella – Vilalba stage (38.85km).
Meanwhile, Craig Breen, who had briefly held a solid fifth place just seven tenths behind his world champion team-mate, ended the opening leg in eighth overall following a spin. The hardest part was still to come for Loeb, however, on Saturday’s leg as the French ace had to get his bearings again on tarmac. Moreover, the roads were wet, providing him with the additional challenge of racing in conditions that he had not experienced for five years in a rally. Yet again, he blew everyone away: after re-familiarising himself with the conditions on the morning loop, a stage win on SS12 (21.26km), as the battle raged around him for the drivers’ title, promoted him to third place, just 3.3s behind the second-placed driver and 8.0s off the leader. Craig Breen, on the other hand, unfortunately fell back to ninth place after another two spins.
With the final leg therefore set to be decisive for the final podium places, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT landed a telling blow at the start of the day! The team perfectly anticipated that the Catalan roads would dry out, with Sébastien Loeb the only driver to gamble on fitting four hard slicks for the opening loop. Two stage wins later, he made it to the mid-leg service in the overall lead, 7.1s ahead of the second-placed driver! Despite a minor scare (a stall at the roundabout on SS17), the French ace held on to the end of the rally to secure the 79th victory of his WRC career by 2.9s, five years after his last overall win (Argentina in 2013). This incredible performance provided the Red Army with their first win of the season and the 99th victory of their long history in the world championship. Meanwhile, Craig Breen finished in ninth place whilst Khalid Al Qassimi concluded his final appearance of the year in twenty-first place, after gradually upping his pace on gravel and having continued to learn on tarmac.