Sebastian Loeb may have played second fiddle to Petter Solberg on the opening day of Rally Mexico, but the second leg was all Loeb's, as he pulled out to a dominant lead in his Citroen C4 WRC in this, the fourth event on the World Rally...
Sebastian Loeb may have played second fiddle to Petter Solberg on the opening day of Rally Mexico, but the second leg was all Loeb's, as he pulled out to a dominant lead in his Citroen C4 WRC in this, the fourth event on the World Rally Championship calendar.
Loeb, who already holds the record for the most WRC career wins, won four of the day's eight stages en route to amassing a lead of just over a minute over his archrival Marcus Gronholm, who moved past Chris Atkinson, Mikko Hirvonen and Daniel Sordo on the morning stages to take over second place.
"The car is very good in these conditions," Loeb said. "I pushed hard but I don't have any moments so I have a good gap and tomorrow I can slow down a bit."
Loeb had held an advantage of 26 seconds over Atkinson's Subaru Impreza WRC2007 at the start of the leg, with Hirvonen and Sordo just a few seconds further back, while Gronholm was a further 17 seconds back after a torrid Friday spent opening up the Mexican gravel roads.
By the end of today's first stage, Loeb had opened up the lead to 37.6 seconds, to Hirvonen, and after the next stage, SS10, it was 48.2 seconds, and there really was no more question as to whose rally this one was.
Hirvonen's second place didn't last long either, though, as by SS11 his Ford Focus RS WRC teammate Gronholm had moved ahead of his fellow Finn. Atkinson and Hirvonen both lost significant time through minor mechanical mishaps, the former having some boost issues on his Impreza and the latter stalling at the start of the stage.
In the afternoon, Gronholm and Loeb seemed content to match pace, the gap staying stead at about a minute, but the two championship contenders continued to draw away from the fight for third place. By the end of the leg, Sordo, Hirvonen and Atkinson were well over 30 seconds drift of Gronholm, too.
"Today was much better," Gronholm said. "I lost time yesterday with a small problem but everything was back to normal today. My aim was to catch those ahead of me and take second and that's what I achieved. I made a few changes to the car between stages 10 and 11 and it feels perfect now. It's a bit late but now I'm happy with the way it feels and I was able to push hard for the first time in this rally on that last stage this morning."
Hirvonen seemed to be the strongest of the three on the potholed gravel roads, but lost a sizable lead over Sordo after a spin on SS13. Then, the leg-ending dual superspecials turned the tables, at least for the time being. Sordo, well known as a tarmac specialist, set the pace on the first circuit around the Leon racetrack, and was nipped to the post by Gronholm on the second run by a margin of only 0.1 second.
Hirvonen was clearly less comfortable in a road racing environment, and lost 1.7 and 1.4 seconds to Sordo on the two superspecial stages, leaving Sordo in third place by 2.8 seconds entering the final day.
"I lost about 25sec when I spun," he said. "I was a little bit lucky that I only spun because it could have been more serious. To fight for second place I had to take risks otherwise I (would have had to) settle for third which I wasn't going to do."
"Second is now out of reach, which I'm disappointed about," Hirvonen continued. "But I'm still in the battle for a podium place. There will be a big fight for third tomorrow and I'm ready for that."
Hirvonen is 2.8 seconds adrift of Sordo, with Atkinson a further 9.7 seconds behind, and the stage is set for a three-way battle for the final podium place on tomorrow's final leg.
Manfred Stohl, the top-placed privateer in a Kronos Racing-entered Citroen Xsara WRC, retains sixth place, but no longer within reach of the podium. From the 8.6-second gap to fifth-placed Gronholm overnight, Stohl now faces a 54-second difference to Atkinson, and will have to rely on mistakes or mechanical difficulties by the front-runners if he is to move up the leaderboard.
After the single Kronos entry, it's all Stobart M-Sport: the team has all three of its Ford Focus RS WRC drivers in seventh through ninth places. Jari-Matti Latvala, the team's young Finnish prodigy, kept pace with Stohl throughout the day while avoiding excessive risks, and set some impressive stage times in the process.
"There was no point to push today and throw it all away," he explained. "Without the pressure I seemed to be able to find my confidence in the car and myself. I really enjoyed the afternoon and the times were quite good so I am very happy, much better than yesterday. The car has been performing really well today and we kept the ride height up so not to damage it."
Matthew Wilson, the team's young British hope, made a few mistakes and couldn't quite keep up with Latvala, but easily maintained position. Meanwhile, Henning Wilson, the team's lead driver, continued his recover from his first-stage rollover on Friday, moving from 16th position overnight to 9th at the end of today's leg.
"On the first stage this morning everything was okay but there was a bit of dust at the end of the stage," said Solberg, who had to run early on today's leg. "The afternoon stages were feeling much better, we had a bit of gravel in the front of the car on stage 14 but no problems. It is not easy to be second on the road here I can tell you that. It is actually still difficult on the second time over the stages because some of the lower cars actually throw gravel back onto the road which does not make it easy."
The rally concludes tomorrow with three full stages totaling some 48 km, and a fifth and final lap around the Leon circuit.