By Manuele Lang
VAL D'ISERE, France (Reuters) - Lara Gut's exceptional talent was rewarded at last when the gifted Swiss skier won her maiden World Cup downhill on Friday.
Gut, who won a downhill silver medal at the age of 17 at the 2009 world championships in the same French resort - though on a different piste - clinched victory in one minute 19.75 seconds.
The Swiss skier was helped by the unexpected exit of Lindsey Vonn, winner of all four speed events held so far this season. The American four-times World Cup winner crashed on a turn in the upper section and ended up in the safety netting.
Vonn eventually skied down the OK piste safely but was so frustrated that the usually talkative Olympic champion refused to make any comment in the finish area.
Gut, who has won two Super-G races since 2009, has been slowly returning to form after a hip injury in 2010.
"I knew I was on the way back, that things were coming into place but I needed a confirmation. I'm very happy because it's my first downhill win, but even more because I'm back to the level that was mine before," she told reporters.
The Swiss, now 21, was helped by circumstances as the shortened course suited her skills while her early bib allowed her to take advantage of better visibility.
"I made the most of the conditions; I gave it my all as I always do", said Gut, known for her aggressive, swashbuckling style of skiing.
With Vonn out, American pride was restored by Leanne Smith who finished 0.16 seconds adrift in second place, the first World Cup podium of her career.
Gut's compatriot Nadja Kamer was third, half a second off the pace.
World Cup leader Tina Maze was 12th, 1.02 behind Gut, enough for her to reach 701 points in the overall standings, a better tally after 10 races than Vonn's at the same stage last season before the American ended on a record total of 1,980 points.
"It was not great today but I had my mind set on tomorrow's super-G, the only discipline in which I still have to win," the Slovenian said.
Maze, who leads leading Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch by 236 points and Vonn by 285, said she was feeling the pressure of being the woman to beat.
"It's a different pace. I'm used to fighting and I know how to handle it but this is a real tight fight. It's exhausting," she said, eager to leave behind the speed events and return to technical events.
"I need these changes in the season. When you shift discipline, everything changes - the skis, the mental approach. It's almost like you're a different person," she said.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)