Sebastien Loeb was always going to win this one after being robbed in Germany and France (Australia was a situation more of his own making).
Whether or not Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala should have finished second and third (in that order) is much more of a moot point. Jari-Matti deserved to win the rally just as much as Loeb did: arguably more so, because he was so much further out of his comfort zone. The Finn described the second day in Spain as “the best day on Tarmac of my career.”
Ford motorsport boss Gerard Quinn disagreed. He said that it was more like one of the best days of Latvala’s career, full stop. Whichever degree of excellence you ascribe to it, there’s no doubt that Latvala surpassed himself in Spain - which must have made it all the more galling when he was forced to relinquish two minutes by checking in early to the time control before the final regroup.
Having sweated for two days to build up the most convincing opposition that Loeb has yet faced on asphalt, the pain of sitting back and powerlessly watching those seconds evaporate must be excruciating.
But “forced” is the wrong word as Latvala did it with good grace - and not for the first time either. It’s funny how Ford’s philosophy has changed: from not even contemplating team orders in the past the team now adopts them with predictable regularity.
Not that it’s Ford’s fault at all. Citroen has been doing the same for a long time now and there’s nothing illegal about it anyway. The only thing that is truly against the spirit of the sport is not doing everything possible to ensure that your team makes use of every opportunity that comes your way. So nobody is to blame.
But, if Hirvonen claims the title at the end of the year, would he truly be as deserving of it as Loeb? It’s a question for debate, but you’d have to come up with a pretty robust case to win the argument.
Because for all of Loeb’s dominance in Spain, the battle for the championship is still incredibly close. Eight points - the extent of Loeb’s advantage - sounds like a lot but the truth is that it’s absolutely nothing. If Hirvonen wins in Britain (which he’s done before, in 2007) Loeb still has to finish second and hope for a few Power Stage points as well to be guaranteed the title. The difference between first and second place in the standings is seven points now, but Hirvonen is more likely than not to pick up some Power Stage points in Wales too. And if he does that, then Loeb has to counter the threat.
So the seven-time world champion isn’t exactly thinking that the championship is won now. When we get to Wales Rally GB it’s still winner takes all. The only difference is that there are two rather than three competitors.
Sebastien Ogier had his worst rally of the year, with two punctures and an engine problem. Had he been up there, he would have been forced to help out Loeb. So as one experienced journalist pointed out, his problems were conveniently inconvenient. Not that Citroen is especially bothered now that they have clinched their seventh manufacturers’ title, but it will be interesting to see how Ogier knuckles down to the job of making life difficult for Hirvonen on the season finale...
But Hirvonen needs to clear his head before embarking on the final round. Until the final morning in Spain, for whatever reason, he seemed not to have any answers - while at the same time his team-mate was demonstrating that the car could be good enough to beat Loeb. So the car wasn’t the problem, and neither was Hirvonen a broken man. Far from it: he said that he was driving well and that the notes were good. But until the last day of the rally the times weren’t coming. The only thing he did differently was adopting a more aggressive driving style, which is never usually recommended on asphalt - a surface where being as smooth as possible pays dividends (one of the reasons why Loeb has always been so masterful on this surface).
When it came to the gravel, for once being first on the road probably helped Loeb, as he managed to avoid the dust that affected all his following rivals (indeed, some people watching on Friday even suggested that Loeb was driving in a way designed to create as much dust as possible). True, he did also suffer from road sweeping, which is why Latvala got past him on Friday afternoon. But during the final night stage Latvala was once more affected by the dust in the dark, meaning that Loeb then claimed a lead he was never to lose. So ultimately, it’s fair to conclude that the advantages of running without dust outweighed the penalty of cleaning the road.
The Friday night stage proved particularly troublesome with Dani Sordo actually having to come to a stop during the night stage to let the dust clear. Otherwise he would have been challenging for his third podium in as many asphalt rallies, underlining the MINI’s reputation as a sealed-surface rocket.
Curiously, the car is not quite as strong on gravel, which is odd because it’s much harder to make a car go quickly on asphalt. One of the explanations is the MINI’s delicate appetite for tyres (always a critical factor in asphalt performance), which allows it to run the softer compound much more often than its rivals. This ensured Kris Meeke’s first ever WRC stage win on Sunday, coupled with his first finish of the year and his first world championship points. It was another very convincing weekend for MINI - and it will be fascinating to see how they get on now on home territory in Britain.