WRC

Loeb catches Rally Mexico lead as Subaru stumbles

Loeb catches Rally Mexico lead as Subaru stumbles

Sebastien Loeb is happy to have left the snows of Scandinavia behind: after the first day of Rally Mexico, the Citroen pilot is comfortably in front at the fourth event in this year's World Rally Championship. Sébastien Loeb and...

Sebastien Loeb is happy to have left the snows of Scandinavia behind: after the first day of Rally Mexico, the Citroen pilot is comfortably in front at the fourth event in this year's World Rally Championship.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, Citroen Total WRT, Citroen C4 WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Loeb was close to the front throughout the day, but did not take over the lead until Petter Solberg's Subaru failed to take the start of SS6, the last full-length stages of the day.

2.1 seconds adrift of Solberg at the end of SS5, Loeb took advantage of the Norwegian veteran's absence and put his foot to the floor to clinch his second stage win of the day by a 2.2-second margin over his Citroen C4 WRC teammate Daniel Sordo and Ford Focus RS WRC pilot Mikko Hirvonen.

Two superspecial stages followed, around the 2.2 km Leon racetrack, but even with Ford's Marcus Gronholm and Subaru's Chris Atkinson taking stage wins on those, Loeb reigned supreme at the end of the day, with a 26.3-second margin to Atkinson and a 30.1-second gap to Hirvonen.

But it was Solberg that was the story of the day. With much of the last two years spent in the wilderness, outside the fight for overall victories, the 2003 WRC champion and the Subaru World Rally Team appear to be back in the hunt with the debut of their new car. With wins in each of the three first stages, Solberg gave notice that he is back for real.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills, Subaru WRT Subaru Impreza 2007 WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"Everything was perfect until about 12km before the finish line of SS5 when the oil light started to blink," he explained. "I pushed on, but at the end of the stage we had no oil pressure and, it turned out, no oil. And that was it. Overall, it's important to note that we had the winning pace, even on the repeated stages, and things like tyre wear and general feeling were very, very good. We were leading the rally here, and I'm sure it won't be long before we're doing that again."

Unfortunately for him and the team, the new Impreza WRC2007 held its speed better than it held its oil: before the start of SS6, the Subaru released the contents of its oil reservoir on the transit section between stages, leaving the champion without an opportunity to improve his second-place finish from 2006. Solberg is expected to rejoin on Saturday, though, to put more mileage on the WRC2007 under the SupeRally rules, which will impose a 15-minute penalty on him for missing three stages.

In the absence of his team leader, then, it was Atkinson who had to pick up the mantle of leadership, and the young Australian responded by setting the fastest time in the second run around the Leon road course.

"I haven't had such a good feeling in the car for a long time, and the pace we've shown today is really good news for the whole team," Atkinsoned beamed. "We're a little bit away just now, but improvements will come with experience and we're learning more all the time."

Chris Atkinson and Glenn MacNeall, Subaru WRT Subaru Impreza 2007 WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Atkinson holds a 3.8-second edge over Hirvonen, but things may change on Saturday, when Hirvonen will no longer need to run second on the road -- due to his championship position -- and suffer from the effects of having to "open" the road.

"I knew it was going to be hard this morning because of the conditions," Hirvonen explained. "But I found my rhythm more this afternoon and made a good tyre choice. It's a good fight for second and I have many drivers, including Marcus, close behind me so I need to watch out. Tomorrow's stages aren't so fast but they will be looser so my start position is good."

Loeb's teammate, young Spaniard Daniel Sordo, holds down fourth place after the first leg, a huge improvement over his struggles in Sweden and Norway. Even through he was never fastest, he was consistent and was able to stay in touch with the leaders.

But will he be able to hold off Gronholm tomorrow? The two-time champion and current championship leader is fifth place, 11 seconds off Sordo's pace. He suffered from the loose gravel on the roads due to his first starting position for most of the day, but put in a stonking drive in Leon to take the win in the first superspecial and take over fifth place from Manfred Stohl.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, BP Ford, Ford Focus WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"It wasn't such a good day but I don't really know why," the Finn said. "It wasn't great to be first on the road this morning because there was no line to follow and it was hard to find the braking points. But I also lost time this afternoon and I don't know why. I will have to start again tomorrow morning and see what I can do with a better road position."

Stohl, the winner of SS5 in his Kronos Racing Citroen Xsara WRC, lost over 10 seconds to Gronholm in SS7, and now stands 8.6 seconds out of fifth place in spite of his valiant efforts -- still, by far, the fastest privateer entry.

46 seconds behind Stohl is the next privately-entered car, Jari-Matti Latvala's Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus. With team leader Henning Solberg, Petter's elder brother, rolling his Focus on the first stage, the team's hopes are now pinned on Latvala, who scored a fifth-place finish in Norway.

"The start was a bit slow for me because I am still trying to find my confidence on gravel after being on the snow for two rallies, but this afternoon felt much better," the young Finn explained. "Everything is fine and we had no problems with the car or tyre choice today which was great."

Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team, Ford Focus WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Latvala has a more-than-comfortable lead, at a minute and 38 seconds, over his other teammate, Malcolm Wilson, who holds down eighth place and the final point for the drivers' championship in spite of engine troubles in the afternoon.

"We had a misfire with the engine this afternoon which started in the middle of stage 5 and it got slowly worse towards the end of the day," Wilson said. "I knew it would be bad in stage 6 because there are a lot of long corners uphill. Because of this I tried to keep the momentum going and some of the fast sections were quite scary."

Saturday will see two passes through the Ibarilla (30.2 km), Duarte (23.5 km) and Derramadero (23.3 km) stages, followed by another two laps around the Leon circuit. Will Ford's Hirvonen and Gronholm be able to recover? Can Sordo fight off Gronholm -- and Stohl? Can Latvala make an impression on Stohl?

Those questions, and many more, will be answered tomorrow at the completion of the second leg.

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