A HISTORIC WIN!
With the 79th victory of their amazing career after an incident-packed race, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena guided Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT back to winning ways, proving once again the value of a committed team that refused to give up.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
The only previous occasion that Sébastien Loeb had successfully attempted a backflip on the final podium of a rally was back at the 2004 Tour de Corse to celebrate his first world title. The former gymnast repeated the feat yesterday, confirming the historic significance of this victory, claimed in the final guest appearance of his part-time return in 2018, six years after he contested his last full season in the WRC. Although he had won in Spain eight times running (between 2005 and 2012) before entering this year's rally, he hadn't competed at the event since 2012. However, his three stage wins in Mexico – where he also briefly held the overall lead – and another three fastest times in Corsica, suggested that he would be more or less on the pace. Perfectly assisted by his faithful co-driver Daniel Elena, the nine-time world champion did better than more or less: once again showcasing his incredible ability to adapt to conditions, he gradually worked with the team to fine-tune the set-up of his C3 WRC, ending the opening leg on gravel in fourth place, just 0.5s behind the third-placed driver and 3.4s adrift of second position. In the process, he set an impressive third fastest time (+2.0s) and then a second-fastest time (+2.9s) on the decisive La Fatarella – Vilalba stage (38.85km). Meanwhile, Craig Breen, who had briefly held a solid fifth place just seven tenths behind his world champion team-mate, ended the opening leg in eighth overall following a spin. The hardest part was still to come for Loeb, however, on Saturday's leg as the French ace had to get his bearings again on tarmac. Moreover, the roads were wet, providing him with the additional challenge of racing in conditions that he had not experienced for five years in a rally. Yet again, he blew everyone away: after re-familiarising himself with the conditions on the morning loop, a stage win on SS12 (21.26km), as the battle raged around him for the drivers' title, promoted him to third place, just 3.3s behind the second-placed driver and 8.0s off the leader. Craig Breen, on the other hand, unfortunately fell back to ninth place after another two spins. With the final leg therefore set to be decisive for the final podium places, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT landed a telling blow at the start of the day! The team perfectly anticipated that the Catalan roads would dry out, with Sébastien Loeb the only driver to gamble on fitting four hard slicks for the opening loop. Two stage wins later, he made it to the mid-leg service in the overall lead, 7.1s ahead of the second-placed driver! Despite a minor scare (a stall at the roundabout on SS17), the French ace held on to the end of the rally to secure the 79thvictory of his WRC career by 2.9s, five years after his last overall win (Argentina in 2013). This incredible performance provided the Red Army with their first win of the season and the 99thvictory of their long history in the world championship. Meanwhile, Craig Breen finished in ninth place whilst Khalid Al Qassimi concluded his final appearance of the year in twenty-first place, after gradually upping his pace on gravel and having continued to learn on tarmac.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
What can you say about this win?
First and foremost, I would like to congratulate the team! This win is incredibly good for everyone and is richly deserved. The team never gave up. We remained committed despite the difficult times that we have had to go through this season. In fact, everyone just worked even harder to succeed and manage to get this result. It's especially satisfying to win once again and remain unbeaten in Catalonia for the second year running. This mixed-surface rally is one of the ultimate challenges of the season, and this year it was made even more difficult by the treacherous weather conditions, particularly on Saturday. In spite of this, we were competitive on both gravel and asphalt, particularly grabbing three stage wins on tarmac. We also made some bold, decisive calls on tyre choice, and from a mechanical point of view, we had a completely issue-free weekend. And yet this weekend includes some of the hardest service periods of the year, particularly switching the cars from gravel to tarmac spec on Friday evening in just an hour and fifteen minutes. But we had prepared very well for the weekend in the workshop and everything went perfectly according to plan.
Did you think that Sébastien and Daniel were capable of such a performance?
We knew that with Seb and Danos, you have to expect the unexpected! Once again, they proved it this weekend and in some style. They got their bearings back again very quickly, regardless of the surface, and performed at an incredible level, all of which without making any real mistakes. Sébastien and Daniel have undoubtedly written another page in their fantastic story this weekend. We have once again been involved in their extraordinary fate, and it's absolutely fabulous to have shared such an emotional experience with them!
Cédric Mazenq, Sébastien Loeb's race engineer this weekend, was at the heart of the action on Sunday morning when the call on tyres was made, a bold choice that would quickly prove to be decisive. He recalls the experience…
"It was an important moment! Being eight seconds behind the leader, if we wanted to close the gap, we had to gamble. And if we were going to attempt something, we had to do it in the morning because the grip was a little bit in between, with the damp patches drying out, whereas we were expecting it to be dry in the afternoon and the gaps would therefore be smaller. We had already had conditions like this in testing and so we could tell that the hard Michelin slicks were the best option, provided we could get them to warm up. We knew that the first few kilometres were dry at least, so we thought that would help get the tyres up to temperature. All these elements meant we could give Seb something to think about. With the hard tyres, we reckoned that we could make up about thirteen seconds during the loop. Gradually, he began to warm to the idea, but he was afraid that it might rain because the weather was still changeable. That's why we put softs on the car, whilst we continued to talk it through. But at the last minute, Laurent Poggi, our weather information man stationed at the end of the second stage, confirmed to Seb that the roads were drying out. That was when we put on the hard tyres, and that was also the point at which we won the rally!"