A Historic Win
Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena guided Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT back to winning ways as they secured the 79th victory of their amazing career after an incident-packed race. This victory proves once again the value of a committed team that refused to give up.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
Sébastien Loeb marked his win this weekend in Spain with a backflip on the podium; a celebration to match his 2004 Tour de Corse when he won his first world title. This win was Loeb’s final guest appearance for Citroën in 2018, six years after he contested his last full season in the WRC.
Although Sébastien 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 on the pace.
Perfectly assisted by his faithful co-driver Daniel Elena, the nine-time world champion did better than simply stay on the pace. 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 behind his world champion team-mate, ended the opening leg in eighth overall following a spin.
For Sébastien the hardest part was still to come 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 since his last rally in 2013. Yet again, he blew everyone away. While the battle raged around him for the drivers’ title, Sébastien re-familiarised himself with the conditions on the morning loop and scooped a stage win on SS12 (21.26km), promoting him to third place, just 3.3s behind the second-placed driver and 8.0s off the leader.
With the last leg 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 nine-time world champion held on to the end of the rally to secure the 79th victory 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 99th victory of their long involvement in the world championship.
Craig Breen unfortunately fell back to ninth place after another two spins, finishing in ninth place overall whilst Khalid Al Qassimi concluded his final appearance of the year in twenty-first place, after gradually upping his pace on gravel and continuing to learn on tarmac.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACINGTEAM PRINCIPAL
What can you say about this win?
First and foremost, I would like to congratulate the team. This win is incredibly positive 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. Everyone continued to work even harder to succeed and to get this result.
It's especially satisfying to win once again in Catalonia and remain unbeaten 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, achieving 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. 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. We had prepared extremely 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 Sébastien and Daniel, you have to expect the unexpected and they proved it this weekend in some style. They got their bearings back again very quickly, regardless of the surface, and performed at an incredible level without making any real mistakes. Sébastien and Daniel have undoubtedly written another page in their fantastic story this weekend and we are delighted to have once again been involved in their extraordinary fate.
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: we were 8 seconds behind the leader so if we wanted to close the gap, we had to gamble. 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 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 Sébastien something to think about; with the hard tyres, we reckoned that we could make up about 13 seconds during the loop.
Gradually, he began to warm to the idea, but he was concerned 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 Sébastien that the roads were drying out. That was when we put on the hard tyres, and also turned out to be the point at which we won the rally."