2009 Rally Great Britain – Click above for high-res image gallery
Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes an exciting season in motorsport. For some, it's witnessing the dominant driver shatter records while sailing to one victory after another. For others, it's the down-to-the-wire action that leaves championships undecided until the very last minute.
For decades, Formula One was dominated by the same few teams – Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Benetton/Renault – winning the title every year until Jenson Button and Brawn GP broke the cycle this season. On the other end of the spectrum, French rally ace Sebastien Loeb has been dominating the World Rally Championship with Citroen for the past five years. But as this year's championship drifted 'round the corner to its final round in Great Britain this weekend, the title remained up for grabs. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
After winning six out of eleven rallies this year, defending champion Loeb arrived in the UK close behind Finnish rival Mikko Hirvonen, who – after placing second behind Loeb last year and securing the manufacturers' title for Ford in 2006 and 2007 – took four rally victories this year. By the end of a fiercely fought season, the two leaders were separated in the standings by just one point, turning this weekend's Rally GB into the championship decider.
With his rival close behind in the rankings, Hirvonen failed to set the pace in the opening stages on Friday, giving Loeb a 9-second lead only to whittle it down to 2.4 seconds by the end of the seventh special stage on Saturday morning. The defending champion, however, then proceeded to open up a much bigger lead of 25 seconds by halfway through the weekend. Any chance the Finn may have had at recuperating the time and securing the lead was lost, however, when the hood on his rally-spec Focus came loose to block his vision.
Finishing over a minute behind Loeb, Hirvonen managed second place, but the two-point advantage of the Frenchman's victory was enough to propel him – and perennial co-pilot Daniel Elena – one point past the Finn and even deeper into the record books with an unprecedented sixth world championship.
Citroen's second driver Dani Sordo almost made it a one-two finish for the French team, but ultimately finished just one second behind Hirvonen to take third place. With Sordo coming in third in the championship as well, ahead of Ford's #2 Jari-Matti Latvala, Citroen managed to lock out the Ford team for the manufacturers' title for the second year in a row and its fifth in seven seasons.
With the 2009 season now wrapped up, the WRC will now focus on preparing for next year, when the championship switches to the Super 2000 formula with smaller cars that more closely resemble the production vehicles on which they're based. It'll be a new dawn for rallying that promises to be as dramatic a change as this past season was for F1. Whether Sebastien Loeb and the Citroen rally team manage to turn the new formula into another pair of titles or whether it'll shake things up to crown a new champion, however, remains to be seen.