When Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena stopped their Citroen C4 WRC in front of the Haguenau town hall on Sunday, they had scored their 60th victory in the WRC, and bagged their seventh consecutive FIA World Rally Championship title. Dani Sordo and Diego Vallejo in second place helped the Citroen Total World Rally Team secure its sixth Manufacturers' World Championship title.
After two long stages, the third day of Rally France took the crews to the north of Strasbourg. The final leg on which there were no service halts, consisted of two passages through the stage in the Bitche military camp, followed by two passages through the stage in Haguenau, the town where Loeb grew up.
The seven-time World Rally Champion was deeply moved by the increasing enthusiasm on the stage, bringing him from Strasbourg to Haguenau to race in the first city stage. "There were people everywhere on the road, and at the stage. It was rather moving."
Sordo set the fastest time in the Camp de Bitche stage in front of Loeb: "We didn't have any split times so it was difficult to know if we had the right pace. I was almost surprised to set the quickest time." Loeb admitted that he nursed his lead: "Without the splits we were racing blind, but I didn't take the slightest risk in the very quick sections."
After an interminable regrouping halt in Bitche, the organizers decided to cancel the second run through the military camp stage and the rally ended in the streets of Haguenau. After crossing the finish line, Loeb gave vent to his joy by climbing onto the roof of his C4 WRC: "My first world title will always remain the best for me, but this one will have a special place in my heart. We won it after a very difficult race. It's mind blowing to cross the finish line in my home town, and it's incredible to see so many people. I don't think we've ever seen so many spectators at a rally."
"It's good to get to the end," said a breathless Daniel Elena. "This route was a real challenge, but we managed to avoid the pitfalls to win the world titles for us and for Citroen."
Olivier Quesnel, the Citroen Racing Team Principal, showed how proud he was of the work of his team and his crews: "What Loeb's achieved this weekend is exceptional. Nobody can imagine the pressure on his shoulders. But he managed to ignore it when he had to concentrate on going for the quickest times. He didn't really need to come first in this rally to become world champion, but the guy's a born winner and he couldn't just do the necessary. Once again, he proved that he's the best driver in the world at present."
While Loeb's triumph on his home rally was widely considered a foregone conclusion before Thursday's ceremonial start in Strasbourg, the tricky stage conditions put the onus on survival as the wet asphalt tests of the Alsace region became coated in mud and gravel dragged onto the road by competing crews taking 'cuts' through corners.
It meant Pirelli's P Zero asphalt tire, fitted to all the four-wheel drive cars competing on the event, was subjected to extremely demanding conditions, which intensified when the rain subsided on Saturday morning and there was no precipitation to clean away the surface dirt and debris. But the tire passed the test with flying colors and was widely praised for the level of grip it offered.
"For sure this is really special and it's incredible for me to win my seventh world title here in my home town," said Loeb. "It has been a very impressive rally but very difficult. There has been a lot of support and I really did not expect this. With Dani [Sordo] finishing second, Citroen has won the manufacturers' title and me my 60th world championship rally. Sure I led from the start but the conditions never made it easy and I really had to concentrate. Fortunately my car and the tires were always very good and never let me down."
Jari-Matti Latvala, who produced arguably his best performance on asphalt by going fastest on three stages in his Ford Focus WRC and finishing fourth overall said, "The Pirelli tire worked extremely well in very bad conditions. It was so difficult with so much muck on the road but we never had a problem with grip, particularly under braking for the difficult corners it was always very good."
Due to the slippery conditions, competitors opted to use the soft compound version of the Pirelli P Zero tire throughout the event. The compound type is designed to provide optimum road holding in lower ambient temperatures and when the stage surface is damp and slippery.
"The mud, the rain and the cold temperatures made the conditions the most difficult we have ever experienced on a Tarmac rally," said Pirelli's senior WRC tire engineer Matteo Braga. "There were quite a few problems with broken wheels from drivers taking big 'cuts' resulting in tires losing their air. But there were several cases of drivers coming back to service with badly damaged rims but with air still in the tire. This demonstrates the strength of the sidewall construction we pioneered since we became the official tire supplier to the WRC in 2008."
As well as counting for round 11 of the 13-event World Rally Championship, Rallye de France also formed the penultimate rounds of the Super 2000 and Production world championships.
Patrik Sandell, driving a Skoda Fabia S2000, took the honors in the SWRC category, with Armindo Araujo winning the PWRC in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. French wildcard entrant Jeremi Ancian won the Junior World Rally Championship division in his Suzuki Swift S1600.
The World Rally Championship heads next to Spain for the penultimate round of the season from October 21-24. The event has a new format for 2010 with Friday's opening day using gravel stages with Tarmac sections. Pirelli will provide its gravel-specification Scorpion tire for day one and its P Zero asphalt tire for Saturday and Sunday, when the event uses all-asphalt tests.
The Citroen Junior Team Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia maintained second place in the FIA World Rally Championship with a sixth-place finish in the Citroen C4 WRC on the Rallye de France.
The French crew set off from sixth place this morning after incurring 10 minutes of road penalties, due to re-starting the rally after retiring from day two. "There's not much left for us to play for on this rally," explained Sebastien as he got into his C4 WRC. "But it's important to get to the finish in order to score points."
Two fifth-fastest and one sixth-fastest time later, Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia finished sixth on the Rallye de France.
With two rounds left before the end of the season, Sebastien Ogier now has a 22-point advantage over Petter Solberg. "This sixth place gives us some important points for the championship," he pointed out.
"We've still got quite a comfortable margin. But there are two rallies left, which we are going to have to take very seriously if we want to finish second in the drivers' championship. That would be a great result for us."
Benoit Nogier, Citroen Junior Team manager, underlined the positive aspects at the end of the Rallye de France. "Citroen's key objective was to wrap up both world titles this weekend," he said. "We're very proud - and very moved - to see Citroen and Sebastien Loeb win in France and claim the championship at home."
"The Citroen Junior Team had a slightly more difficult weekend," he continued. "Kimi [Raikkonen] got off to an encouraging start before making a mistake that stopped him from finishing on Saturday. He chose not to continue in the rally, as he preferred to save his car for the forthcoming Rally of Spain.
"Sebastien made a brilliant start once more, mixing it with the best in the business. There's a little bit of performance left to come from him before he can start challenging for victories on this surface, but he's getting closer and closer."