Elfyn Evans put an end to his recent bad luck by bagging a superb third place in Spain on the final stage.
The Dolgellau-born driver claimed a podium finish by 0.5secs on the power stage 0f RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España after Thierry Neuville hit a rock.
Evans finished just 16.5 secs adrift of nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb who took the honours in his guest appearance for Citroen.
The Welshman’s fellow M-Sport driver Sebastien Ogier was second to regain the lead in the World Rally Championship standings with just the final round in Australia to come.
Evans and co-driver Dan Barritt battled throughout the three days on gravel and asphalt to claim their second podium of the season and show their speed after a difficult season at times.
Going into the final four stages the duo were just 1.8secs off the podium before taking it from Ogier’s main championship through the Power Stage!
“We came here to secure a good result and that’s what we got,” said Evans. “The speed has been up there for the past few rallies now, but for various reasons we’ve come away empty handed.
“It’s good to finally see that speed rewarded and to show that we had the pace on both surfaces here in Spain.”
SS15: 6th (+8.5)
SS16: 7th (+9.5)
SS17: 2nd (+3.5)
SS18: 4th (+3.1)
Team chief Malcolm Wilson said: “Elfyn delivered a really strong performance. He and Dan were competitive on all surfaces and were challenging right at the sharp end – taking a well-deserved podium at the end of the rally which was just what he and the team needed.
Loeb edged defending title holder Sébastien Ogier by 2.9sec in an intense finale to the four-day mixed surface event.
Ogier’s consolation was that he regained the championship lead by three points from Thierry Neuville with one round remaining.
The Belgian was relegated from third to fourth, and missed out on crucial bonus points, after hitting a stone near the finish.
Loeb, who retired from full-time competition in 2012, last stood on the winners’ podium in Argentina in 2013.
He lay third overnight but charged into the lead by winning Sunday’s opening two speed tests as an inspired tyre choice reaped rewards.
The asphalt roads dried quickly after overnight rain and the 44-year-old 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 in his Ford Fiesta. He held on through the final 14.50km test 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.”
Tyre choice errors early in the event cost Ogier dear, but this season’s remarkable title fight swung back in his favour when Neuville hit a stone close to the finish.
The impact broke his Hyundai i20’s right rear wheel and allowed Evans to snatch third.
Spain’s Dani Sordo was a further 1.6sec behind in fifth, while early leader Ott Tänak recovered to sixth after yesterday’s puncture. The Estonian is 23 points adrift of Ogier and with a maximum 30 available at the last round, his hopes hang by a thread.
Overnight leader Jari-Matti Latvala remained second until he hit a barrier in the penultimate stage, punctured his front left tyre and dropped nearly 50sec. He finished eighth.
The championship showdown takes place at Kennards Hire Rally Australia. The gravel event is based in Coffs Harbour on 15 – 18 November.
Top 10 Overall
1. Sébastien Loeb / Daniel Elena (Citroen C3 WRC) 3:12:08.0
2. Sébastien Ogier / Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2.9
3. Elfyn Evans / Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +16.5
4. Thierry Neuville / Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +17.0
5. Dani Sordo / Carlos del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +18.6
6. Ott Tänak / Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1:03.9
7. Esapekka Lappi / Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1:16.6
8. Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1:26.4
9. Craig Breen / Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +2:07.0
10. Andreas Mikkelsen / Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2:48.2
11. Teemu Suninen / Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +3:52.0
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
1. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC – 331
2. Hyundai Motorsport – 319
3. M-Sport Ford World Rally Team – 306
4. Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team – 216