STRASBOURG, France (AP) — Frenchman Sebastien Ogier clinched the world rally championship title after Belgium's Thierry Neuville failed to win the first special stage of the Rally France on Thursday.
Ogier started the rally with an 83-point lead over Neuville in the standings and can no longer be caught by Neuville, who needed maximum points from the three remaining races and power stages on each rally.
"I'm so happy. Before the stage I was a bit confused about whether it would happen, but we're here and we managed to do it," said Ogier, who drives for Volkswagen. "Now I will be able to be aggressive all weekend because we've achieved our goal."
Points are awarded for Thursday's power stage and Neuville's second-place finish means he can no longer score maximum points. But Ogier pledged not to ease up. "We now will focus on the rest of the weekend," he said. "What's important for us is the team title. I will do everything I can to get points."
Neuville finished 0.7 seconds behind stage winner Daniel Sordo of Spain with Ogier .01 second adrift of Neuville in third place. Ogier succeeds nine-time champion and countryman Sebastien Loeb. After sealing the title, Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia climbed onto the roof of their Polo R in celebration and milked the applause from the crowd. Loeb congratulated his former Citroen teammate.
"He deserves it, he has had a great season," Loeb said. Neuville had little expectation of achieving the near-impossible task of catching Ogier. "We knew already that we couldn't really win, so it doesn't change anything," he said.
Loeb is rally driving for the last time on home soil. After winning his ninth title last year, he contested only a few races this year. He finished stage one in seventh place. The 29-year-old Ogier won his first rally at the Rally of Portugal in 2010 and was promoted to Citroen's main team for the last three races of the season and he earned a victory in Japan.
The following year he drove alongside Loeb, but the pair had a strained relationship and he moved to Volkswagen last year. Ogier won five races this year.