World Rally title comes down to the Coffs Coast roads
SEBASTIEN Loeb has wound back the clock to win Rally de España and ensure the 2018 World Rally Champion will be crowned on the Coffs Coast next month.
Turning back the years, the incredible victory by the nine time World Champion, - his first win since 2013 - sees Loeb's countryman Sébastien Ogier hold a narrow lead in the driver's championship over Thierry Neuville heading into the final round of the FIA WRC calendar - Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the Coffs Coast, November 15-18.
After Spain, the main contenders stand just three points apart in the standings but all the headlines today read about returning champion Loeb snatching his "greatest" win for Citroën in RallyRACC Catalunya Rally de España on Sunday.
Second place on the season's penultimate round vaulted Sébastien Ogier back into the lead in the drivers' title over Thierry Neuville, while Ott Tänak retained a slim chance by winning the points-paying Power Stage at the end of the rally.
The winner-takes-all final to the most competitive rally championship in many years will be staged at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast.
The manufacturer's championships is also open heading to Kennards Hire Rally Australia.
"This is a dream scenario for Rally Australia ticket-holders. Sébastien Loeb, the WRC's greatest driver, has thrown a surprise into the title fight by denying the main contenders maximum points in Spain," event Chairman Ben Rainsford said.
"The most dramatic and unpredictable competition in world motorsport will now host an incredible showdown on the Coffs Coast."
Loeb, 44, had started only a handful of events since retiring from full-time rallying with a record nine championships at the end of 2012.
Until a three-event programme this year, he hadn't competed since early 2015 and last won a rally more than five years ago.
Spain was the French legend's 79th WRC win and the 99th for Citroën, which had not topped the podium since this time last year.
In an intense climax to the four-day, mixed-surface event, Loeb edged defending title-holder Ogier - himself Citroën-bound for 2019 - in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta by 2.9sec.
Ogier's teammate Elfyn Evans scraped into third place by just half a second at the end of 332 kilometres when Neuville broke a wheel on the final stage.
Loeb had been third overnight but charged into the lead by winning Sunday's opening two stages as an inspired tyre choice reaped rewards.
The asphalt roads dried quickly after overnight rain and he was the only front-running driver to gamble on Michelin's hard-compound tyres, which provided better grip than the softer option favoured by his rivals.
Loeb threw away vital seconds with a spin in the penultimate test to allow Ogier to close, but held on through the final 14.50km stage for his ninth Spanish win.
"The information we had from the weather team was right. The roads were drying and I knew if I used hard tyres in these conditions I could be fast," he said.
"To win after almost six years is incredible, but to do so in a battle like this, where you only discover after the finish line that you have won, is amazing. I never believed I would win again.
"Right now, given how the rally panned out, I'd be tempted to say it's perhaps my greatest win and I'm delighted to secure what is a richly-deserved result for the team."
Tyre-choice errors early in the event cost Ogier dearly, but this season's remarkable title fight swung back in his favour when Neuville hit a stone close to the finish and slipped to fourth.
Spain's Dani Sordo was a further 1.6sec behind in fifth, while early leader Tänak recovered to sixth after a puncture on his Toyota Yaris on Saturday. The Estonian is 23 points adrift of Ogier and with a maximum 30 available in Australia, his hopes hang by a thread.
Rally Australia is supported by the NSW Government through its tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW.
Final results, RallyRACC Catalunya Rally de España (WRC round 12 of 13):
1 Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroen C3 WRC) 3h12m08.0s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2.9s
3 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +16.5s
4 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +17.0s
5 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +18.6s
6 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m03.9s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m16.6s
8 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m26.4s
9 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +2m07.0s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m48.2s
FIA WRC drivers' standings:
1 Sébastien Ogier 204
2 Thierry. Neuville 201
3 Ott Tänak 181
4 Esapekka Lappi 110
5 Jari-Matti Latvala 102
6 Andreas Mikkelsen 84
7 Dani Sordo 71
8 Elfyn Evans 70
9 Craig Breen 61
10 Hayden Paddon 55
FIA WRC manufacturers' standings:
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team 331
2 Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team 319
3 M-Sport Ford World Rally Team 306
4 Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team 216