Sébastien Loeb won a remarkable Rally de España to seal his first win in the championship for over five years.
Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT driver Loeb, who last won in Argentina back in 2013, held on to beat Sébastien Ogier despite spinning on the penultimate stage and won in Spain by just 2.9 seconds.
After running in second going into Sunday’s four remaining stages, Loeb gambled on using a harder tyre compound than his rivals and he won the opening pair of stages on Sunday morning as a result.
Ogier responded by winning stage 16 and as Loeb spun, he gained 7.2 seconds back on the 44-year-old, but Loeb’s third quickest time on the Santa Marina Power Stage was enough to seal him his 79th WRC win.
The nine-time WRC champion said on his victory: “To win after almost six years is incredible, but to do so in a battle like this, where you only discover after the finish line that you have won, is amazing. I never believed I would win again.”
“The information we had from the weather team was right. The roads were drying and I knew if I used hard tyres in these conditions I could be fast.”
The final stage of the rally threw up more drama, as then championship leader Thierry Neuville hit a rock and broke his Hyundai’s right rear wheel and he lost enough time for Elfyn Evans to leapfrog him into third in the overall leaderboard and the Belgian didn’t score any Power Stage points as a result. Evans got the better of Neuville by just 0.5 seconds.
The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team driver’s fourth place finish along with Ogier’s second means that the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team driver now leads the championship going into Rally Australia by just three points with Toyota’s Ott Tänak now 20 points further behind in third.
The Estonian had been leading in Spain on Friday night, but a puncture on Saturday dropped him out of contention and he could only recover to sixth by the end on Sunday, although he did win the Power Stage, giving him five extra points to keep his title bid alive.
The top five in Spain were separated by just 18.6 seconds at the end of the rally, with Dani Sordo finishing just 1.6 seconds adrift of Neuville. With Tänak sixth, his teammates Esapekka Lappi and Saturday night leader Jari-Matti Latvala took seventh and eighth respectively.
After being passed by Loeb, Latvala had been running second before he hit a barrier on the penultimate stage which caused a puncture and 50 seconds of lost time. Craig Breen, Andreas Mikkelsen and Teemu Suninen completed the WRC runners.
WRC2: Rovanperä Secures Second Successive Win
Kalle Rovanperä held off Skoda teammate Jan Kopecký to win his second WRC2 event in a row.
The young Finn won in Spain by just 8.5 seconds over 2018 champion Kopecký despite the Czech driver winning three of the four stages on the Sunday loop, including the Power Stage.
Nil Solans looked as if he was going to continue his push to take the win going into Sunday, but the young Spaniard was forced to change a puncture midway through stage 15, costing him nearly three minutes in dropped time.
Solans’ problem let Petter Solberg move up to third and give the new Volkswagen Polo R5 a podium on its debut. The 2003 WRC winner held off triple FIA European Rally champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz by 23 seconds, with Solans completing the top five.
Henning Solberg finished sixth, holding off a charging Pierre-Louis Loubet by just 6.1 seconds in the process with Fabio Andolfi took eighth. The Citroen C3 R5 pair of Ole Christian Veiby and Simeone Tempestini completed the WRC2 top 10, while Enrico Brazzoli completed Sundays four stages to take the WRC3 win.
The final round of the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship, Kennards Hire Rally Australia, takes place between November 15-18.