LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland - A dramatic season-ending crash for Maria-Hoefl Riesch on Wednesday denied Alpine skiing one of its two overall title duels at the World Cup Finals.
Hoefl-Riesch's exit — from the downhill course into safety nets, then airlifted from the slope by helicopter — left Anna Fenninger of Austria favourite to win her first giant crystal trophy one month after becoming an Olympic champion.
Fenninger's sixth-place finish in the final downhill built a slim 11-point lead in the standings over the 2011 champion with three races remaining.
Hoefl-Riesch will miss them all after sustaining upper leg, elbow and shoulder injuries on her left side.
"It's tough," Germany women's head coach Thomas Stauffer said. "We were up and running for the World Cup all season and at the end you can't battle for it."
Earlier, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway seized the men's overall lead from Fenninger's teammate Marcel Hirscher, who skips downhill, in what also shaped as a back-and-forth duel this week on sunbathed slopes at Lenzerheide.
Svindal's fifth-place finish moved him only 41 points ahead and extended a series of results since the Sochi Olympics opened which left him just off the podium.
The Olympic downhills proved a reliable guide Wednesday with men's champion Matthias Mayer of Austria repeating his gold-medal success in another tight race.
Olympic silver medallist Christof Innerhofer tied for second with Ted Ligety of the United States, the Olympic giant slalom champion. They finished 0.11 seconds behind Mayer's winning run of 1 minute, 29.99 seconds.
Lara Gut of Switzerland, the downhill bronze medallist , delighted her home crowd with victory in 1:32.31. Runner-up Elisabeth Goergl of Austria was 0.05 back, and third-placed Swiss Fraenzi Aufdenblatten was 0.57 behind in her final World Cup race before retiring.
Pre-race favourite Fenninger, trailing 1.07 behind Gut, failed to repeat her speedy training runs but 40 race points could yet be enough to clinch the sport's most prestigious honour.
"I hope Maria can race again," Fenninger said before the extent of her rival's injuries were known. "My focus is on the next two races. What she is doing, I can't change."
Hoefl-Riesch's bitter-sweet day started atop the standings and got better minutes before entering the start house. Fenninger's failure to lead assured the 29-year-old German of her first season-long downhill title after six years of domination by Lindsey Vonn, the injured and absent American.
Hoefl-Riesch crashed midway down the bumpy course when her skis slipped beneath her at a sharp right-hand turn, sending her sliding off course.
The downhill trophy ceremony was staged immediately after the race with an empty top step on the podium and the German anthem playing as the helicopter landed nearby. Hoefl-Riesch was driven to a nearby hospital for checks.
Fenninger now leads Gut, a six-race winner, by 235 points and defending champion Tina Maze of Slovenia by 287. A maximum of 300 points are available in the final three races.
Fenninger can secure the title outright by finishing first or second on Thursday in the super-G, in which she is Olympic champion. She also won Olympic silver in giant slalom, which is the World Cup season-ending race on Sunday.
Svindal and Hirscher will both start in the men's super-G also scheduled Thursday.
"If I had to put money on someone I have no idea who it would be," said Svindal, a two-time overall champion, of his contest with the two-time defending champion. "I used to be 1-2-3 every race, and now I'm 4-5-6. But Marcel is too."
Ligety is the super-G world champion and will be a contender on a steep slope that produces sharp-turning corners which suit his technical skills.
"This is a hill I know I have a good chance on," said Ligety, whose career-best result in downhill improved on his fourth here in 2007.
Bode Miller had seemed poised for victory Wednesday until going wide near the end of his run. He placed eighth, 0.62 behind Mayer, who got his first World Cup win.
In a rare choice by World Cup race organizers, the men and women raced through the same gate-setting down the 2.3-kilometre (1.43-mile) Silvano Beltrametti course.
Mayer's time was 2.32 seconds ahead of Gut, who raced two hours later on a warm day. Gut had the 18th best time and was faster than two men who completed the course: Johan Clarey of France and Canada's Erik Guay.
However, the woman who did not finish safely, Maria Hoefl-Riesch, left the most significant mark on the day.