Jari-Matti Latvala scored his fourth win of the World Rally Championship (WRC) season, dominating his way to his first series win on tarmac at the Rallye de France-Alsace.
The Finn’s victory was made all the more important as the man he is chasing for the championship – his Volkswagen teammate Sebastien Ogier – could only take the three points for winning the Power Stage away from his home event. Those three points though, were enough to keep Ogier 27 points clear at the top of the standings with just two events left in the 2014 season.
Though his rival was knocked out of contention for anything by the minor points on the morning of the first day of the rally Latvala had the measure of the defending champion. He won half of the rally’s eighteen stages, Ogier in contrast could only take victory in two stages each on the second and then final day. That the victory was not purely down to Ogier’s issues was also illustrated in the fact that the Frenchman was only able to recoup 16 seconds of the near nine second deficit his accrued thanks to a succession of issues that began with a gearbox sensor problem that caused the engine on his Polo to repeatedly cut out on the second stage.
His woes were compounded by a four minute penalty after an error by co-driver Julien Ingrassia led to them checking in four minutes early to start stage three before a suspension problem on the Friday afternoon loop of stages added more unwanted seconds to his arrears to Latvala.
Almost all of the time Ogier regained could be traced to the four stages on the final day as Latvala employed the necessary caution to avoid a repeat of his Rallye Deutschland mistake when he threw away a near-certain victory to a final day crash.
Andreas Mikkelsen – the third of the factory VW – finished second. The Norwegian was ultimately 45 seconds down on Latvala, though he added his best career finish on tarmac to his stablemate’s sealed surface breakthrough.
Kris Meeke completed the overall podium on a rally in which he was caught between the title concerns of the overall lead and the tight battle that developed for the mid-places in the top ten.
Through the second day of the event victory in the battle, and thus fourth place, looked to be destined for Robert Kubica as he powered from seventh across a 14 second gulf to take fourth place from Dani Sordo with stage victory on stage 15, the first of Sunday’s tests. However, a mistake on the Power Stage – caught out by a wet patch on the road – Kubica rolled into retirement and out of what would have been a career best finish.
Thus Sordo, winner of the Friday evening Super Special in Strasbourg, was handed back fourth place with Mikko Hirvonen taking fifth place overall.
In the process of taking second fastest on the Power Stage – and the two points to go with it – Elfyn Evans took sixth place from Mads Ostberg to cap a fine showing by the Brit on the French roads. Had he not have been assessed a one minute, 40 second penalty on Friday for being ten minutes late to a stage Evans would have been challenging Meeke for the final podium. As it was the M-Sport driver still gave the weekend one its enduring images as he and co-driver Daniel Barritt pushed their Fiesta into service after electrical problems had brought it to a halt.
Behind Ostberg Theirry Neuville, Bryan Bouffier and Martin Prokop completed the top ten, Ogier finishing only thirteenth overall.
The 2014 WRC season continues with the RallyRACC-Rally de Espana on October 23-26, with Latvala once again needing to outscore his teammate if the title fight is to be go down to the final event of the year, Wales Rally GB (November 13-16).