The Tour de France has its king of the mountains but Wales Rally GB showcases the king of the valleys. For the second year in a row that title went to Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala, a man who has all but forgotten what it feels like to sip champagne atop the podium considering his last win in the championship came seven months back on the frozen tracks of Sweden. For the Finn and his team, that success must have seemed like a millennium ago. The longer you wait for something the better it feels, so it isn’t hard to imagine the sense of relief in the Ford garage when Latvala finally crossed the line on Sunday, bringing to an end one of the longest barren runs in the manufacturer’s recent WRC history.
In truth, the seas were surprisingly calm for the Ford number one to negotiate all weekend. After the usual lead-swapping on the opening few stages, Latvala hit the front on stage three and gradually built on that advantage, leaving the rest of the field to scrap it out for the minor places behind him. His eventual victory margin of 27.8 seconds was pleasingly comfortable.
One man who had a less than comfortable time in Wales was eight times world champion Sebastien Loeb. Whilst Latvala was savouring the sweet bubbly for the first time in months, the Frenchman found himself in the equally unfamiliar position of second, ending his remarkable run of victories stretching back to round five in Argentina. In fact, the Citroën ace was pushed to his absolute limits just to secure second place, after one of the tightest and most titanic battles of the year with Ford’s Petter Solberg. Solberg went in to the final stage with a miniscule 0.1 second advantage, on a day when the pair had switched positions three times, but he couldn’t prevent the Frenchman from sneaking past at the death and afterwards regretted not making it a Ford one-two. After three days of rallying, the duo were separated by just 0.9 seconds. That is WRC at its best.
Loeb’s teammate Mikko Hirvonen suffered another frustrating rally and only had a Power Stage win to make up for a disappointing fifth overall. Ahead of him was the ever improving Mads Østberg who survived a late scare when his engine developed a misfire to come home in fourth. Citroën youngster Thierry Neuville negotiated his first Rally GB without incident to finish seventh.
So, on the face of it Ford have finally managed to get one over on their biggest rivals at Wales Rally GB, a very good day at the office. Or is it? Scratch under the surface and things seem very different indeed. The battle for second place was more significant than it first appeared, as Solberg was the only Ford man capable of hauling in Loeb before the rally started. Those five extra points for the eight times world champion take him to 219 and mean that he is now beyond the reach of both Fords in the championship race. Moreover, despite a poor showing, Hirvonen’s three bonus points won on the Power Stage mean that he is now the only man still in touch with the championship leader, although the 61 point deficit is beginning to look unbridgeable.
Ford might have won the battle of Britain but in reality this will be remembered as the rally where the war was lost.