A fifth win in a row for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, the Citroen Xsara WRC and the Michelin Z BTO tyre! The defending World Champion profited from the championship's visit to Greece to claim his fifth consecutive win, and also his sixth from...
A fifth win in a row for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, the Citroen Xsara WRC and the Michelin Z BTO tyre! The defending World Champion profited from the championship's visit to Greece to claim his fifth consecutive win, and also his sixth from eight starts since January, to equal the record of five successive wins established by Lancia-Michelin's Didier Auriol in 1992. The result takes Loeb further clear at the top of the Drivers' championship with a 23-point lead over Petter Solberg, while Citroen-Michelin, assisted by the 97th podium finish of Carlos Sainz's career, is back on top in the Manufacturers' standings at the season's mid-way point. Toni Gardemeister, 2nd, put in a remarkable run with his Ford Focus WRC to ensure yet another all-Michelin podium.
Uncatchable, unbeatable, unbelievable... There is no shortage of adjectives to describe the current domination of Citroen-Michelin's Sebastien Loeb of the world class rallying scene. Unbeaten since mid-April's Rally New Zealand, the Acropolis Rally takes the 2004 champion's current winning streak to five in a row, including victories over the calendar's three roughest rounds. At the championship's mid-point, he enjoys a 23-point lead (the equivalent of more than two wins) over Petter Solberg (Subaru) and is 26 points clear of Toni Gardemeister (Ford-Michelin).
Physically drained by his participation in the Le Mans 24 Hours with Pescarolo-Michelin the weekend prior to the eighth round of this year's World Rally Championship, Sebastien Loeb had little time to recuperate prior to one of the most demanding encounters of the championship, the Acropolis Rally, which was run in searing heat with ground temperatures of up to 42C.
But Sebastien Loeb didn't show any signs of fatigue, nor did he seem to suffer from the heat, while his Citroen Xsara once again enjoyed clockwork reliability. The Frenchman kicked off the event -- which has never been happy hunting ground for him to date -- with a fastest time in the super-special in the Olympic Stadium, Athens, in front of more than 60,000 spectators!
Serious business began the following morning in the mountains that surround the city of Lamia, 200 km north of the Greek capital. Marcus Gronholm (4th) was the quickest off the mark and the Peugeot driver began to pull clear while Sebastien Loeb, running first on the road due to his position as provisional World Championship leader, spent much of the day sweeping a clear line through the gravel-littered stages for his followers.
However, over Leg 1's second loop of three stages, with the track swept clean by the morning's pass, the Frenchman was able to switch to maximum attack mode and ease into the lead thanks to a fastest time on the day's final test (Elatia). Running on hard compound Michelin Z BTOs, he covered the 32.55 km stage 15s faster than Gronholm to return to the overnight halt in Lamia with an advantage of 6 seconds over the Finn.
The following day, Loeb was fastest over all eight stages, extending his cushion to nearly a minute and a half in the process over his closest chaser, who was now Toni Gardemeister (Ford-Michelin) after Gronholm fell back to 4th place following a transmission problem. "The first half of the season has been very positive for us and Michelin," commented Citroen Sport team boss Guy Frequelin who was recently awarded the Legion d'Honneur. "Sebastien has more experience, we have worked on the car and Michelin's tyres have evolved enormously. Not only have we won the three roughest rallies of the championship, but it was also very pleasing to win in New Zealand. We are only half way into the championship, but I would like thanks Michelin here and now for the work they have put in so far."
The duel between Toni Gardemeister, who put in a sparkling performance this weekend with his Ford Focus-Michelin, and Carlos Sainz (16th participation in the Acropolis Rally) kept the spectators entertained for a long time. Midway through the second leg, the two drivers were split by a mere 1.9s before the Spaniard lost a little time with a gearbox problem later in the day. "My car was perfect and my tyres were excellent. I have been able to push very hard this morning," said Toni Gardemeister on Sunday after pulling clear of Sainz who was happy to settle for his 97th podium finish from 196 WRC starts and to secure six additional manufacturers' points for Citroen who go clear of Peugeot in the provisional classification. I n keeping with its reputation, the Acropolis Rally saw a long list of WRC runners hit trouble.
Three of the four Ford Focus entered by M-Sport were forced to retire (Kresta, Warmbold and Henning Solberg), while all three Skoda-Michelins met the same fate (Tuohino, Schwarz and Paasonen). It was also a tough weekend for Subaru whose three works Imprezas, plus the Mitsubishi Lancer of Galli were found to be underweight at a surprise check on Thursday evening and all four drivers were fined. The following day saw Petter Solberg lose more than three minutes and all hopes of securing a second consecutive Acropolis success following an off. The Subaru team came away from Greece with a single Manufacturers' point.
The best-placed privateer at the flag was Mikko Hirvonen who put in a remarkable run to claim 5th overall. After his strong run in Sardinia before retiring, the Finn benefited this time from the latest Michelin Z BTO tyres with which he was particularly impressed. Mikko was fastest over the last two stages of the rally and finished the event a mere 16.8 seconds behind the factory Peugeot driver and two-times World Champion Marcus Gronholm.