WRC

Loeb earns 10th season win in Catalunya

Loeb earns 10th season win in Catalunya

Sebastien Loeb was in dominant form again this weekend to take his 10th World Rally Championship victory of the year in Rally Catalunya, clinching the manufacturers' championship for Citroen. Loeb had already claimed his second drivers'...

Sebastien Loeb was in dominant form again this weekend to take his 10th World Rally Championship victory of the year in Rally Catalunya, clinching the manufacturers' championship for Citroen. Loeb had already claimed his second drivers' championship two events ago with a second place in Rally Japan.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
"I always wanted to win here one day, and it's great to have succeeded," Loeb said at the finish. "But more important still for me is the fact that Citroen not only finished 1st and 2nd thanks to Francois (Duval), but also came close to monopolising the podium with the privately-run Xsara of (Xavier) Pons."

Duval, the junior driver on the Citroen team, took a solid second place. He was nearly a minute and a half adrift of Loeb, but what mattered was that the young Belgian brought home full points for Citroen, something that he has struggled with from time to time this year.

Behind them, Mikko Hirvonen put in the drive of the rally, urging his 2003-spec privateer Ford Focus to a well-deserved podium finish, 1:25 behind Duval, clinching the podium with a torrid drive on the final stage of the rally. Hirvonen, a gravel specialist, took his career-best result in what was his first tarmac event of the year.

He started the decisive SS15 with a 6.5-second gap to Pons, and when he saw Pons stall his Xsara at the start, losing precious seconds, Hirvonen went all-out on the 28.33-km stage. Twenty three kilometres into the stage, he was tied with Pons, but a flying final sector saw him take third place from the young Spaniard by a 1.2-second margin.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
"I've finally scored my first podium and I can't believe it was on asphalt and not gravel," Hirvonen smiled. "It was my first asphalt rally for a year and it proved I can be quick on both surfaces. When I saw Pons mess up his start on the final stage I decided to really attack and try to make my dreams come true. It was a great battle and I can't believe I had such a good weekend considering how long it is since I drove on this surface."

Hirvonen finished fourth on Saturday, and was briefly elevated to third when Marcus Gronholm's Peugeot gave up the ghost en route to Saturday's final service, only to lose the position to Pons when a lengthy oil pump belt replacement incurred a 20-second penalty.

It was also the final event for the current Focus WRC RS 04 as a works car, as the new-spec car will debut at the season-ending Rally Australia. In the current car's swan song, Roman Kresta drove conservatively to take fifth place and six manufacturers' points -- Hirvonen and Pons earn no manufacturer points as privateer entries -- 37 seconds behind Pons.

"It was another good result, especially considering that a lot of people drove really well here," Kresta summarized. "I made a few mistakes but that's part of the sport. Today went very well, especially the opening stage where I had a great feeling with the Focus and set second fastest time. The time gaps were still quite close so I couldn't relax too much."

It might have been an impressive finish for the Focus, but a broken brake caliper cost Toni Gardemeister nearly 15 minutes yesterday in an incident that could have turned out much worse. Running well out of the points, the Finn was not at the top of his game today, and lost more time running off the road, eventually finishing 14th, although still scoring a single manufacturers' point.

"I missed a pace note and slid into a ditch," Gardemeister admitted. "It's a problem for me when I'm not driving at 100 per cent because it affects my concentration. I wasn't concentrating fully and braked 10 metres too late for a corner and I was off the road. It was good to score a point for Ford but it was a disappointing weekend for me personally."

Nicolas Bernardi and Jean-Marc Fortin.
Photo by Team Peugeot.
Nicolas Bernardi, filling in for Markko Martin at Peugeot, took sixth place for the French team, scoring six manufacturers' points -- though that would not be enough, with the Citroen 1-2 finish and Gronholm's retirement, to prevent the sister marque from clinching the manufacturers' title.

"I have the experience of two good rallies behind me, and I am very pleased with the results we have achieved," the 28-year-old French pilot said. "From the Saturday of Corsica onwards, I have been in the rhythm. I feel very proud that I was able to fight with and occasionally set times that were comparable with those of such an established star like Marcus Gronholm. Tomorrow I will get back behind the wheel of my Peugeot 206 WRC in order to get ready for the next round of the French Championship, which I hope to win this year!"

Antony Warmbold took seventh, 51 seconds behind Bernardi, in another privateer Focus, making it three private entries in the top seven positions.

Jan Kopecky was a further 22 seconds adrift in the top works Skoda Fabia WRC, having lost some 15 seconds to Warmbold on the final leg. However, as the team had nominated Armin Schwarz and Alex Bengue as the points-scoring drivers, Skoda was denied manufacturers' points for Kopecky's efforts.

"This morning was not a time to take unnecessary risks," the you Czech explained. "I had proved that I had the speed when the conditions were right but there was so little visibility at times that I decided that eighth place was better than going off the road trying to catch Warmbold."

As things turned out, while Bengue's rally ended with a gearbox failure, Schwartz, who suffered from handling problems, still succeeded in scoring three manufacturers' points for the team.

The WRC tour now moves to Australia for the season finale, where the open gravel roads will present a sharp contrast to the hard surfaces of the Catalunyan mountain roads.

Ford will debut the Focus RS WRC 06, and Colin McRae will be guest starring for Skoda -- but the big question will be whether Loeb can set a new record with an 11th win in a single season.

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