Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia made no mistakes on the Sunday morning sprint on the final day of WRC Rally France Alsace to give the Citroën Total World Rally Team its ninth victory in the 11 rallies run so far this season.
The win has helped Citroën maintain its lead in the Manufacturers’ World Championship. On the other hand, the positions in the Drivers’ Championship title chase have closed up. Sébastien Loeb is now on equal points with Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen following a dramatic ruling after the event had finished.
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are tied for the lead after the Finns finished the rally in fourth place in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, leaving them just three points from the head of the championship. However, Citroën driver Petter Solberg was excluded from third place after his car was found to be under weight after the rally. This decision promoted Ford’s 31 year-old Finnish driver onto the podium of the asphalt event.
The additional points mean Hirvonen is tied for the lead of the drivers’ championship with Loeb, who retired from the rally on Friday’s opening leg with engine problems. Just three points cover the leading trio, with two rounds remaining – Spain later this month and Britain in November.
“It’s unfortunate to inherit a position due to a rival’s misfortune, but at this stage of the season every point counts,” said Hirvonen. “We’ll go to Spain as joint leaders of the championship and with just two rounds remaining, the fight for the title is truly wide open. I aim to be on top form in Spain and I can’t wait!”
Solberg’s exclusion also promoted Ford Abu Dhabi’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila to fourth in another Fiesta RS World Rally Car. Latvala lies fourth in the points table. For Ogier, the third day of Rally France Alsace was a sprint in comparison to the two long stages on Friday and Saturday.
The crews left the Strasbourg parc fermé at 6.20am and covered two loops of three stages without a service halt. The leg measured only 26 miles and looked like a stroll in the park, although Sébastien Ogier knew he couldn’t afford to lift off until the finish because his lead over Dani Sordo was less than 10 seconds at that stage.
The first stage was in the Bischwiller gravel pit, posing a singular challenge because the first half was run on gravel. Ogier lost three seconds to Sordo on the 3.4-mile 18th stage. “We hesitated for a long time about our tire choice in the service park and finally opted for hard rubber,” explained Ogier. “We knew I’d lose time in Bischwiller but our choice was better adapted to the summer conditions we would meet further on.”
It was the right way to go as the Citroën DS3 WRC driver was on equal footing with his rivals in the following stages. Ogier held on to his short lead over Sordo and then set the fastest time in the Cleebourg vines (SS22). The rally ended with the Power Stage in the streets of Haguenau. The Citroën Total World Rally Team driver set the third-quickest time scoring an extra point.
“Our decision to go for hard tires didn’t pay off as we spent a lot of time in the regrouping park before the stage. I finally set off on completely cold tyres and I wasn’t able to do any better.”
Temperatures climbed to 82˚F during the three-day rally, although early morning starts ensured damp patches lingered under the trees in the woodland areas surrounding Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region in north-east France.
The drivers tackled 23 speed tests covering 210 miles over asphalt roads in the Vosges mountains and the vineyard region, and two crowd-pleasing street tests in the center of Mulhouse and Haguenau.
Ford drivers Hirvonen and Latvala had opted for a mix of soft and hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tires, which delivered a strong performance in conditions ranging from clean asphalt to dirt and gravel-covered roads. However, both Hirvonen and Latvala dropped time on the opening morning after sliding off the road. Hirvonen lost 50sec when he clipped a bank, pulling the front left tire off the wheel.
Latvala slid wide onto a grassy area and became stuck, losing 80sec as spectators pushed his car back onto the road. They ended the day with Latvala in fifth and Hirvonen in sixth.
However, the team’s strategy switched from chasing outright results to concentrating on Hirvonen’s title aspirations following the retirement of series leader Sébastien Loeb with engine problems. It meant Hirvonen could propel himself back into the title fight with a solid points finish as the 31 year-old measured his pace and adopted a risk-free policy. Latvala and Hirvonen climbed to fourth and fifth during the second leg, and maintained these positions during the final day until shortly before the final live TV Power Stage in Haguenau.
Latvala checked into a regroup area early, incurring a two-minute penalty, which allowed Hirvonen to move ahead and claim valuable extra points to reduce the gap from 15 points to three.
“Who would have thought four weeks ago we would be where we are now in the championship?” said Hirvonen. “The battle ended on Friday when I made a mistake and Loeb retired. After that I knew it was all about points, but it was difficult to find a rhythm because I was driving cautiously to finish.
“I owe Jari-Matti a big thank you. Again he proved what a superb team player he is. There’s no more room for error over the final two rounds and it should be a great end to the championship,” he said.
Latvala won five of today’s six speed tests, and claimed maximum bonus points by winning the Power Stage. The 26 year-old was delighted with his pace on his least-favorite surface. “If I want to be a good asphalt driver, this is the day I learned and raised my pace. We’ve made progress since the last asphalt round in Germany and I’m increasingly confident with the car.
“It was my best performance on asphalt. I made some mistakes and I wasn’t consistent enough, so I still I need to sustain pace and consistency for the whole rally, but it’s just about fine-tuning. I was hesitant on asphalt before but I’m not afraid of it any more. Being a Finn and being good on asphalt isn’t easy, but I’m getting better and better,” explained Latvala.
Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr finished 13th in the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC. “It was hard to find my speed but this is my first asphalt rally for a year, my first asphalt rally in the Fiesta RS WRC and using Michelin’s tires, so to finish is a good result,” said Al Qassimi.
Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino finished ninth with their best result of the season.
|1.||S Ogier/J Ingrassia||FRA||Citroen DS3||3hr 06min 20.4sec|
|2.||D Sordo/C Del Barrio||ESP||Mini John Cooper||3hr 06min 26.7sec|
|3.||M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen||FIN||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 09min 47.0sec|
|4.||J-M Latvala/M Anttila||FIN||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 09min 50.7sec|
|5.||D Kuipers/F Miclotte||NLD||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 13min 02.4sec|
|6.||H Solberg/I Minor||NOR||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 13min 28.7sec|
|7.||M Østberg/J Andersson||NOR||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 14min 18.7sec|
|8.||K Block/A Gelsomino||SA||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 14min 45.9sec|
|9.||P Campana/S De Castelli||FRA||Mini John Cooper||3hr 14min 59.1sec|
|10.||M Wilson/S Martin||GBR||Ford Fiesta RS||3hr 16min 21.2sec|
|2.||Ford Abu Dhabi||318pts|
|3.||M-Sport Stobart Ford||133pts|
|5=||FERM Power Tools||34pts|
|5=||Team Abu Dhabi||34pts|