Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC correspondent
Sebastien Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena started first on the road on the opening day of Rally Argentina and ended up having a few spins on the slippery route that allowed Ford’s Petter Solberg to take the lead, and yet at the end of the first six special stages, the eight-time FIA World Rally champion was back in the top spot, and the closest rival was his own Citroen teammate.
“It has been an incredibly long day, but the two remaining legs look set to be just as demanding,” sighed Loeb. “We’re not clear of our rivals as yet, because Dani Sordo is only thirty seconds or so off the pace. We’ll have to keep pushing tomorrow!”
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are just one-tenth behind Loeb and Elena as the two DS3 driving combinations end the first leg of action ahead of the closest Ford by over 33 seconds. Dani Sordo, the sub driver for the Fiesta that is usually driven by Jari-Matti Latvala, and his co-driver Carlos del Barrio are third.
I spun the car again; twice, in fact!
Solberg and Chris Patterson took the lead in last night’s stage one but Loeb answered back with the second stage win – the first test on Friday – with Solberg still in control. The Norwegian won the third stage before the midway break and was in a comfortable lead at that time.
The Citroen team made the needed changes for Loeb for the handling he needed to be competitive on the last three special stages to gain time on Solberg, whose lead was over 20 seconds. The Frenchman also had a bit of luck when the blue oval Fiesta of Solberg had a broken steering arm, just 5.4 km from finishing the fourth stage. Hirvonen then inherited the top spot on the leaderboard.
Loeb was fastest in both SS4 and SS5 as he took the lead away from his teammate, and commented on the morning stages: “I spun the car again; twice, in fact! The second time, I had to manoeuvre the car a few times before I could get away again. Overall, I had to fight with the handling of the car; there was too much oversteer in the tight bends.”
Hirvonen closed out the first day with the win on SS6. “Ending such a long day with the smallest possible gap, it’s totally crazy! I love this stage and this time, I felt totally comfortable in the DS3 WRC,” said the Finn.
Sordo was consistent in his first world rally contest with the Ford works team. “I enjoyed my first experience in the Fiesta. The more kilometres I drive in the car, the more comfortable I feel. I’m learning all the time. This isn’t the easiest rally in which to learn a new car and I could drive faster, but that means taking more risks, and that increases the risk of going off the road. I’m pleased with my consistency and I’ll continue driving the way I have been,” he said.
News from the Ford camp is that the repair to Solberg’s Fiesta will allow him return to the competition using the Rally 2 rules. The Norwegian will start 11th on the road, taking a 15 minute penalty. He explained the chain of events that took him out of action: “I was driving in the ruts when the sump guard under the car touched some exposed bedrock and the impact bent the left steering arm. I continued at normal pace for another 10km until the arm snapped in mid-air at a sixth gear crest about 6km from the finish. The car went off the road when it landed and the front right hit a rock.
Solberg and Patterson replaced the broken arm with the spare one in their Fiesta but they then noticed that the right steering arm was also broken. “Obviously I’m disappointed. I had a 20sec lead, although I didn’t feel that was a comfortable margin in a rally as long as this. I fought back to third in a similar situation at the last round in Portugal, so my aim now is to climb back up the order as far as I can over the next two days,” added Solberg.
Adapta Ford driver Mads Ostberg ended today in fourth, and he also had his own headaches when on the fourth stage he had a power glitch and then on SS5, he could not hear his co-driver Jonas Andersson on the intercom. Yet the Norwegian was able to finish the day; albeit over a minute behind the leader.
Citroen’s Junior driver, Thierry Neuville actually held the fourth position but he went off on the fifth stage, causing damage to the right-rear of his DS3. Like Solberg and Patterson, the Belgian and his navigator Nicolas Gilsoul will use the Rally 2 rule to restart tomorrow.
“I had too much speed coming into a bend and the car was thrown into a roll after hitting the embankment. We managed to get going again after the car landed on its wheels, but we had no brakes so we had no choice but to stop,” said Neuville.
That moved Nasser Al-Attiyah and co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini to fifth overall, and considering he is racing this weekend with neck pain, the Qatari is giving the Argentinean fans a reason to cheer for one of their favorite drivers who won the 2011 Argentina-Chile Dakar event. Al-Attiyah also had a spin during the second stage on the very muddy road; however he is five minutes off the pace and holding the position may prove difficult.
“My neck was really sore and I lost concentration. I made a mistake and we damaged the car a little after a minor impact. I lost another minute on SS3, but we were still in the race! I was more cautious for the rest of the day and that paid off, as we managed to climb up to fifth place. I have a chance of getting a good result here!” said Al-Attiyah.
Expect more action tomorrow as the WRC teams take on the weekend’s endurance test. Today, the drivers spent more than 15 hours in their cars to contest the demanding stages; with just the midway break.