Loeb perfect in Tour de Corse victory

Sebastien Loeb was flawless on the twisty mountain roads of Corsica, winning every stage of the Tour de Corse en route to his first victory in the French round of the World Rally Championship.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Loeb, who had already clinched his second consecutive championship, had never won on the island in spite of his blistering speed on the tarmac rallies. In 2003, the Frenchman spun off the road while in the lead, and then, last year, persistent understeer spoiled his chances, although a second place clinched him the 2004 WRC championship, his first.

"I really wanted to win here, not only because this is my home rally but also because I love the Corsican stages," Loeb explained at the finish. "I admit that at the beginning of the season the two objectives I set myself were to win in Finland and Corsica. Marcus (Gronholm) proved the man to beat in Finland, but like him I am very pleased to have won my home round, with a little touch of panache!"

Loeb's main objective for the weekend, though, had been to clinch the manufacturers' championship for Citroen, who came into the event with a 150-128 points lead over archrival Peugeot. But even with Loeb's victory that was not to be: the lead is now a near-unassailable 30 points, but Peugeot still has at least a mathematical chance to make that up in the final two rounds.

The team was on pace to clinch, with Peugeot's #1 driver Gronholm, having fallen out of the event on Friday with a gearbox failure, but Francois Duval failed to bring the second Xsara WRC home. The young Belgian, who had lost time on Saturday with brake problems, pushed too hard in trying to catch third-placed Petter Solberg, and rolled his car.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
And yet another DNF did not please Citroen team boss Guy Frequelin: "Sebastien and Daniel once again lived up to the high expectations everyone had in them. But I am disappointed for Francois. He wasn't feeling very well this morning, and I therefore suggested that he didn't try to catch Petter Solberg, and that he should even let Stephane Sarrazin pass if he got close. He was totally free to slow if he wished ..."

Duval has two more chances to redeem himself in 2005, but, so far this season, the Belgian has scored only two podiums and 29 points, as compared to Loeb's 117 points -- nine wins, 12 podiums and only a singular DNF -- in the same equipment.

But while there may have been some unhappy thoughts in the Citroen camp, the cool driving of Toni Gardemeister brought out the smiles at Ford World Rally Team. The Finn matched his career-best second-place finish in an event where Finnish pilots have often struggled -- Markku Alen is the only one to win on the island in the event's 50-year history, having won in a Lancia 037 in 1981 and 1982.

"It means a lot to me to be second behind a driver who was fastest on every stage," Gardemeister said, clearly satisfied. "It's my best asphalt performance. I felt sure I could take a good result because I knew the Focus RS is a great car on asphalt and I quickly realised that if I didn't make any mistakes, then everything would be fine. The car, Jakke, and I worked well together all weekend."

Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
Malcolm Wilson, the team principal, was impressed as well, even if the gap between Loeb and Gardemeister at the finish was nearly two minutes. "Both cars ran faultlessly. It was a great drive from Toni from the beginning to the end, and his consistency was superb. We knew Loeb would be virtually unbeatable on his home rally so this is almost like a win."

And if Loeb was dominant, Gardemeister didn't have any trouble keeping challengers behind him, either. He started the final day 25 seconds ahead of Solberg, and extended that to a full 50 seconds on the third leg, scoring three second-fastest times on the four stages.

Meanwhile, Solberg played things safe. With Duval out of the picture, the Norwegian veteran was able to focus on bringing his Subaru to a podium finish. He kept within a few seconds of Gardemeister's pace on each of the first three stages, but then lost nearly 20 seconds to undisclosed mechanical problems on the final stage of the rally.

"I'm pleased, it was a good rally and we had some good fun out there, let me tell you," Solberg described his rally. "The car is going very well on this surface now, of course it's not a win yet, but it's a positive result for Subaru and Pirelli, we've made a real step in the right direction and I think it looks good for (the next rally in) Catalunya."

Stephane Sarrazin and Denis Giraudet.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
Solberg's teammate, Stephane Sarrazin, claimed fourth, another 52 seconds back, after a solid drive. "I'm happy with fourth place here, it's a good result for me and the team too. It will be interesting to see how we get on in Catalunya because we have seen this weekend how much improved the car is on asphalt."

Roman Kresta took fifth in the second Ford Focus, and Alexandre Bengue took sixth in a Skoda Fabia WRC, scoring the team's best finish this year.

In the end, though, it was Loeb's day, and fully deserved to be so. The Frenchman has already clinched his second drivers' title, and now has a perfect victory on home ground to add to that. But he still has one task ahead: "What makes me even happier is sharing my joy with that of the Citroen team during this extraordinary season. They are a fantastic bunch, always very, very motivated. They really deserve this result, as well as a third Manufacturers' title and we will do our best to wrap that up next time out!"

Rally Catalunya -- watch out, Sebastien Loeb will be gunning for you.