Schilke, WRC Correspondent
Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena kept their overall lead on the final day of the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship challenge to add to their points lead for the 2012 title. Their Citroen teammates, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, gave the French-based team a one-two finish in Rally New Zealand.
It is the third consecutive top two finish for the Citroen team. Neither driver pushed their DS3 to the limits, but they were in a definite fight for the overall victory. Yet, they did not score a single stage win today. The gap between the French ace and the Finn was 29.6 at the end of the three challenging days on a route that was mostly gravel with a bit of asphalt roads as well. The rain came and left, the sun and surprising warm temperatures dried up portion of the route, and at other time the roads were slippery.
“We had to hold out to the end after an exciting two-day battle with Mikko,” said Loeb. “Once again, conditions were difficult but we managed to secure a one-two finish. I’m very pleased that I can go on holiday now with a comfortable lead in the championship! It’s true that the first half of the season has been fantastic, with five wins out of seven rallies.”
Eight-time champions, Loeb and Elena leave with 145 points including the single bonus point in the Power Stage; their margin over Hirvonen and Lehtinen is 38 points.
“It wasn’t a very exciting day, but we had to stay focussed to avoid making a mistake. This is another good result for the team; it concludes the first part of the season, during which I have learned a lot. I am pleased with how the first seven rallies have gone. I have been fighting for the win a regular basis, and that feels good,” said the Finn who added, “I now have a fine collection of runner-up spots, so I’ll be going into the second half of the season hoping to claim some wins.”
Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson also had a good showing today and nailed down the final podium position for the Ford flagship team. Unfortunately for the team, they felll back early and had to make up ground. While they did not set the fastest time on any of the six special stages, they did take second in the Power Stage (22) in their Fiesta RS, and notched two championship bonus points.
The key today was to stay calm to secure third, and taking bonus points in the Power Stage was a good ending.
“We came here with a good car and a big opportunity but unfortunately Friday’s mistake ended our hopes of a win,” admitted Solberg. “That was sad for the team, but a podium is still a good result. The key today was to stay calm to secure third, and taking bonus points in the Power Stage was a good ending.”
M-Sport Ford’s Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet maintained their fourth overall in today’s action. However their teammates Ott Tanak and Kuldar Sikk pushed too hard to retain their fifth place that Tanak made a slight error and they rolled their Fiesta. Both were okay but they were out of the event.
“The roads were very fast today and the conditions have been very difficult, but our tyre choice has worked very well again so I am pleased with that. Even the smallest mistake can cause the car to roll in these sorts of conditions so we decided not to push today. Fourth place is a very good result for us and I have really enjoyed the stages all weekend,” said the Russian.
Tanak admitted, “Unfortunately, I was caught out on a really fast section this afternoon [six kilometres into SS20] and we went off the road.”
Qatar WRT’s Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul scored three special stage wins in their Citroen to end their first Rally New Zealand in fifth. They were sixth at the end of the second leg and started today with just an 18 second lead over Dani Sordo and Carlos Del Barrio. “I’m sorry for Ott, but that’s racing, and I’m happy to make it into the top 5 at this rally. If I hadn’t lost so much time on day one, we might have finished fourth,” said the Belgian.
“I’m pleased to have reached the end of the rally without making any significant mistakes. These three days of racing have been extremely beneficial for me and I would like to thank Nasser Al-Attiyah once again for having given me this superb opportunity! I really enjoyed driving on this magnificent stages and I can’t wait to come back," added Neuville.
Sordo pushed hard today in an attempt to overtake Neuville by earning the fastest time on two of the special stages, but they lost out by 20.7 seconds to place sixth in their John Cooper Works MINI. “Today has been good. I had hoped the soft tyres would have been better in the rain, but still it was nice to win the two stages, particularly in front of all the MINI fans.
“I think we had all hoped this rally would have been a little better for us, but the car has been very good and now I am looking forward to having a much better fight on tarmac in Germany,” added Sordo.
After being tangled up in a fence on the opening day, Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila moved from ninth overall to eighth yesterday in their Ford factory Fiesta RS, and ended up today in seventh! The Finn also scored the Power Stage victory to take the three bonus points.
“Today I started to regain my speed and confidence and I’m happy to earn bonus points for winning the Power Stage,” Latvala said. “I struggled on Friday and after my spin I focused on testing. That brought some good ideas for the next round in Finland. Looking at the points, I have no chance for the drivers’ championship now but the main thing will be to keep fighting for victory on every rally.”
In the SWRC class, Hayden Paddon and John Kennard added to their points lead with the Super 2000 victory. The two did not have an easy time with mechanical gremlins but they continued to push to stay in front of their SWRC rivals. The two Kiwis ended 12th overall in front of their homeland fans.
“Yes, overall the result was good and I’m very pleased for everyone who’s worked so hard that we are now leading the championship, but I was hoping for more,” said Paddon. “I feel the best is yet to come with John and me in the Skoda. The car’s not bad at all, but it’s a fine balance to get the setup right. We’ll do more testing and put in a lot more hard work. We’re aiming to go hard in Finland in July. Finland is a very special rally and it’s crucial to have absolute confidence in the car.”
The World Rally teams now start their summer break. They will be back in action on the first weekend of August to show off how high they can fly at Rally Finland. However for Loeb, he will be busy as the owner of a World Endurance Championship team, but he also will participate in the 2012 ESPN X Games and will take on his former WRC rival Marcus Gronholm, along with Travis Pastrana on June 28 to July 1 in Los Angeles, California.