Petter Solberg conjured a spectacular third consecutive victory at Rally GB to keep Sebastien Loeb waiting a little longer for the title.
It may not be enough to tilt the championship this time, but Petter Solberg conjured a spectacular third consecutive victory at Rally GB to keep Sebastien Loeb waiting a little longer for the title.
The coruscating Norwegian risked everything, chasing the Frenchman through the forests of South Wales all weekend, and made the decisive surge at Margam, the penultimate stage. The final joust on the super special here was rendered a formality and Solberg confirmed the win by 6.3 seconds, the closest finish in a World Rally Championship event in Britain.
Loeb led from the second stage, early on Friday morning, until that fateful test yesterday afternoon and could not camouflage his dismay. He still has a huge lead of 28 points over Solberg, with only four rallies remaining, and the championship will assuredly be his. But to be beaten here, so late in the contest, was as deflating for the Citroën driver as it was dramatic.
"Petter is the only guy in the championship who could have done that,'' Loeb said. "He won because he was so fast - no other reason. I was leading for a long time and lost everything on the last kilometres of the last real stage and that is difficult to take.
"It was important for me to stay on the road, finish well and take points. The championship is never over 'til it is finished but I'm in a good position and that is important.'' Solberg came into the event admitting nothing short of victory would do and he drove his Subaru with that single-minded commitment. His characteristically flamboyant style kept the spectators engrossed and Loeb on the edge. Such was the intensity of their duel that the rest were left trailing in the distance. Third-placed Markko Martin, of Ford, was two and three quarter minutes behind them at the end.
Neither Solberg nor Loeb had the incentive to flirt with calamity on the concluding super special stage and as the Subaru crossed the line its driver thrust out a fist in triumph.
Solberg, partnered by the Welshman, Phil Mills, said: "This is the biggest and most difficult win for me. I have never pushed so hard in my life as in the last two normal stages. It must have been incredible for the spectators. It's been a good, clean fight with Seb - no bull. He's a good guy.''
Loeb began the final day as he had the second, cradling a slender lead that seemed vulnerable to immediate attack from Solberg. The Subaru driver was duly battering at the Frenchman's 7.3-second advantage when his enthusiasm got the better of him and he had a brush with scenery.
Solberg explained: "It was looking very good on the split times but then I made a mistake on a fifth-gear corner, went off the road and got down to first gear before I could get back on the stage. I lost six or seven seconds." Loeb's lead was 8.6 seconds but he scarcely radiated confidence. "I lost time in the middle of that stage,'' he said. "I felt as though I was losing grip.'' His fears were confirmed on the next stage, a repeat of the Rhondda Run. Solberg beat him by 5.1 seconds.
Even that movement of the pendulum could not prepare the galleries for the crucial swing, at Margam. Loeb, far from playing the percentage game, held the Xsara into the stage and, two thirds along the 27.55-kilometres road, appeared to have shifted the balance again. He was up on Solberg and within sight of victory.
Then, inexplicably, he lost some of that momentum and completed the stage 9.2 seconds down on his rival. Solberg led the rally, for the first time, by 5.7 seconds and Loeb conceded to his irrepressible rival.
Alistair Ginley took the accolade of top British driver in 12th place. Matthew Wilson, 17-year-old son of Malcolm, Ford's team principal, was 13th and Alister McRae 14th. Guy Wilks, 18th overall, went to the top of the Junior World Championship.