Sebastien Loeb reined in his world rally championship ambitions on the orders of his team here yesterday. A title finale that had promised drama and intensity in the Wales Rally GB is in danger of being reduced to a shabby anticlimax after Citroën instructed their French driver to put the manufacturers' title before personal glory.
That decree effectively conceded the initiative to Subaru's Petter Solberg and the Norwegian duly established a 6.2sec lead despite a puncture on yesterday's last forest stage. The championship had already lost its British contender when Richard Burns withdrew because of illness. Then Carlos Sainz, of Spain, crashed on yesterday's second stage, seemingly leaving a straight fight: Loeb v Solberg, who are separated by one point: winner takes all.
However, the demise of Sainz threatened Citroën's lead in the all-French duel with Peugeot for the manufacturers' laurels. Two cars per team score in the standings and Citroën, holding a vulnerable five-point advantage, instructed Loeb and Colin McRae that they must finish and avoid unnecessary risk. Loeb, quickest on the first two stages, dutifully backed off and allowed Solberg to edge in front.
Loeb, in his first full championship season, said: "After Sainz went out I was told I had to slow down. I understand the team's position, but for me it is difficult to make this compromise.''
Loeb will have the consolation of a bigger bonus if Citroën secure the manufacturers' championship and his team argue their strategy makes commercial sense. Citroën, like Peugeot and the rest, are here to sell cars.
Guy Frequelin, Citroën's team principal, said: "Maybe this is not the best for the sport, for him [Loeb] or the fight, but we cannot take the risk for the manufacturer's title. I have spoken to Claude Satinet [director general of Citroën] and it is clear what we have to do.''
The command from on high means Loeb is almost certainly relying on a mistake or problem on Solberg's part. The Norwegian did have a scare late in the day, a tyre blow-out costing him perhaps 15 seconds.
Solberg said: "I guess it's all looking good at the moment. But it would have been even better if I hadn't had that puncture."
Sainz's hopes of a third championship expired when he went off in the morning. He missed his braking point, claiming his concentration had been broken by an earlier incident when his in-car camera sparked. He and his co-driver, Marc Marti, attempted emergency repairs to the equipment before rushing back into the fray.
Sainz said: "I wasn't concentrating. I just didn't hear what Marc said. It was a long, long left - fifth or sixth gear, tightening into a third. I didn't even try to brake. I was in fifth and went straight on. It's unfortunate it finished like this.''
Sainz was in distinguished company. Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm, the outgoing champion, hit a log on the same stage, lost 14 minutes and pulled out of the rally.
So did Markko Martin after his Ford Focus overheated. The Estonian said: "We drove for 20 kilometres with no water. We stopped four or five times to fill it up with water from ditches.''
McRae retained fourth place, behind Subaru's Tommi Makinen, despite brake problems and an apparent breakdown in communications with his co-driver, Derek Ringer. The former champion, in probably his last championship event, said: "I've had these problems all season and I'm pretty sick of it.''
McRae, like Loeb, had to drive under the added handicap of team orders. The Scotsman with the reputation as the fastest and most thrilling driver in the business had hoped to go out with a flamboyant flourish. Instead, it appears he must saunter to the bitter end.
Rally GB: Leading Positions after Special Stage 6: 1 P Solberg (Nor) Subaru 1hr 30min 30.8sec; 2 S Loeb (Fr) Citroën +6.2sec; 3 T Makinen (Fin) Subaru +1min 31.1sec; 4 C McRae (GB) Citroën +1:41.9; 5 H Rovanpera (Fin) Peugeot +2:37.9; 6 G Panizzi (Fr) Peugeot +2:45.5; 7 F Duval (Bel) Ford +3:33.0; 8 R Kresta (Cz Rep) Peugeot +3:59.6; 9 F Loix (Bel) Peugeot +4:16.9; 10 M Stohl (Aut) Peugeot +4:43.0.Reuse content