Rally NZ was the 11th of 15 rallies in the 2008 World Rally Championship. At the end of the season, Frenchman Sébastien Loeb successfully retained the Drivers’ World Championship, his and co-driver Daniel Elena’s record-breaking fifth consecutive title with Citroën. Here’s Kate Gordan-Smith’s rally review….
Loeb wins 2008 Repco Rally New Zealand
The Citroën versus Ford battle was just as intense in New Zealand as it has been all season long in the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship. Sébastien Loeb took victory in Repco Rally New Zealand after two incidents in the penultimate stage affected Jari-Matti Latvala and then Mikko Hirvonen to drop the Ford team-mates out of contention for the win.
Latvala started the day as leader, his role as ‘sweeper’ helping Hirvonen to take the lead after the first loop of the two Raglan stages. Hirvonen gradually extended his lead over the field until the penultimate stage when he picked up a puncture, spun, dropped nearly a minute, lost the lead and fell to third overall. In the same stage Latvala crashed out of contention and François Duval (Stobart Ford) went off the road to lose an almost guaranteed fifth position.
After over 350 km of competitive rallying in the wider Waikato region, Loeb came home the victor 17.5 seconds ahead of team-mate Dani Sordo – Citroën’s second one-two finish this season which pushed their WRC manufacturers’ championship total to 141 points, twenty points ahead of the BP-Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team.
Loeb said he was relaxed about the previous day’s decision to slow in the last sector of the last stage which allowed Latvala to take the lead and run first during the third day’s five competitive stages. “I think [it was] more drama for some others than me. For us, it was an incredible finish. In the morning I was in a good position to fight for the win, so I try hard from the start.”
A spin in the first stage cost Loeb ten seconds and despite changing settings on the Citroën C4 during the late morning service in Raglan, Loeb says he couldn’t fight with Hirvonen. “Then Jari-Matti went off the road and I thought maybe Mikko would be under pressure. I thought then that I have to try. Finally, he had a puncture and we won.”
Sordo was naturally delighted to have been in such close contention to allow Citroën a one-two finish and maximum points. “I am also delighted with the feeling I had here in New Zealand ,” said the Spaniard who holds third place in the drivers’ championship. “I still lack experience of this terrain, but I was able to see that I have made progress since last year’s visit.”
Hirvonen summed up Repco Rally New Zealand as one of the biggest disappointments of his career. “But that’s the way sport goes,” he said. “An eight-point gap in the drivers’ standings will be difficult to make up and it’s annoying to end like this after a great weekend. But I finished on the podium and what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. The positive from this event is that I know I can win gravel rallies.”
Petter Solberg finished the best of the Subaru drivers in fourth. “It’s been a tough rally for us but fourth place is good after this weekend,” commented the former world champion. “What an incredible finish, the Whaanga stage was like a scrap yard! Today the car felt the best it has this weekend, so we are definitely making steps in the right direction but it’s taking a little time.”
Citroën privateer Urma Aava came home with four drivers’ championship points in fifth place with both Suzuki drivers, Per-Gunnar Andersoon and Toni Gardemeister, also earning the newest WRC team valuable points. Ford’s Federico Villager and Henning Solberg took eighth and ninth – Solberg’s seven stage wins knocked back by power steering issues – while the Production WRC class winner, Martin Procom, took tenth place overall.
Hayden Paddon added to the delight of wrapping up the New Zealand Rally Championship title after the first two days of competition by also earning the honour being the first New Zealander in 13th place overall.
The WRC competitors head to the all-tarmac Spanish rally next after a break of about a month.