By David C. Schilke
Sebastien Loeb decided to do things the hard way and pushed his way into the overall Rally d’Italia Sardgna lead in the eight stages ran for today’s leg one. Leading first on the road the Frenchman wasn’t as severely hampered as expected and stayed within the fight. While the rest of rivals encountered troubles the World Rally Championship king topped the timesheets with over a half a minute gap to Petter Solberg.
“I’m a bit surprised to have been in the groove today,” smiled Loeb. “The gaps have opened up but I reckon that everybody still has a chance of winning. Sweeping will have more influence tomorrow and theoretically our lead isn’t enough to stay in front. If we manage to keep up the same pace as today, we’ll give our rivals a run for their money!”
If we manage to keep up the same pace as today, we’ll give our rivals a run for their money!
Solberg started the morning with a stage win but lost time on the second stage when the turbo’s boost pipe slowed his privateer Citroen down. The Norwegian then climbed his way from sixth into second place in the afternoon, but was never able to equal his fastest time in the morning. Solberg will start tomorrow with about 20 seconds of a buffer between himself and the rest of the pack. His sights will be focused on the leader, hoping Loeb has more of a problem on leg two’s virgin roads.
“I’m happy with my position right now,” said Solberg. “I lost almost 40 seconds on the loose turbo pipe this morning, so second now is good enough. I want to win this event, and will continue to push more tomorrow. Despite the problem we had on the second stage, it has been quite fun today. The car works well.”
As the team’s entered into the final stage Sebastien Ogier sat in second but made the choice to intentionally drop his pace for better road position later in the event. The Citroen driver was half a minute behind to Loeb and was not feeling up to speed like his veteran teammate. The drop put Ogier in fourth, and within striking distance to the podium position held by Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen.
“Things could have gone better in this leg,” commented Ogier, “but it could have been worse when you see how many retirements there have been. We took the decision to fall back to fourth in the interest of the team as our main rivals have lost a car. Our aim is to fight for second, and we’re well placed to achieve this result. We’ll have to find a better felling to enable us to push tomorrow.”
Hirvonen fought for the lead for most of the day with two stage wins under his belt before a puncture on today’s penultimate test sent him tumbling down into fourth. The Finn quickly recovered with another fastest time on the final stage but is now at a disadvantage for the win, only road position might help his chances.
"The puncture was my mistake,” admitted Hirvonen. “I came into a fast, narrow corner too quickly and hit the bank hard. The tyre didn't stand a chance. I was right not to stop because we only lost about 50 seconds. Third is a good position for the second leg because the roads will clean even more than today. I know tomorrow's stages well and this rally isn't over by a long way.”
His teammate Jari-Matti Latvala and his co-driver Miikka Anttila had a much more disappointing day and retired only 3km into the opening stage due to a bad stage note. The Ford driver will restart the adventure tomorrow under Super Rally rules.
Latvala talks us through the costly error in his own words, “Miikka [Anttila] misread a pace note and called a left corner much faster than it was. I approached the bend far too quickly, and by the time I realised it was slower and tighter it was too late. I tried to brake, but the road was slippery and the car went backwards into the ditch and hit a wall."
"The car ended back on the road but the impact damaged the left steering arm. We drove to the finish and tried to make repairs for the next stage, but there was little we could do. We tried to drive the stage but it was too much for the suspension wishbone and steering arm, which snapped after 6km. I don't blame Miikka [Anttila]. I've made plenty of mistakes behind the wheel and every co-driver has made an error at some point. We all try to be perfect, but we're only human," added the Finn.
That left fifth open to Mads Ostberg in a Stobart M-Sport prepared Ford Fiesta. After two challenging rallies in Portugal and Jordan the Norwegian is looking to redeem himself as Stobart’s point driver.
“The most difficult problem today has been the change of grip,” explained Ostberg, “on most rallies you can predict grip change by the change of colour on the road surface but I couldn’t see the colour change today. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and Sunday – so much has happened today that tomorrow could go any way.”
Dani Sordo is showing well for the new MINI team in sixth after the car’s maiden day of competition. The team’s second car did not fair as well, and was out by stage three when their MINI John Cooper Works WRC went off the road with a throttle issue. Kris Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle were fine, but sad to see an early fourth place lead to retirement.
“We have a lot of positives to take out of a short period of time this morning,” said Meeke. “The car was straight out of the box and we were able to set good times. We were up to fourth, and one second behind third. We know the car is fast. We now have to see what happens as it was a problem with the throttle that eventually put me off the road.”
Speaking of new WRC teams, Volkswagen announced yesterday that they will enter the Polo R WRC in 2013 with a five year commitment. No drivers were confirmed but Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al-Attiyah were on hand at the presentation. Volkswagen is no stranger to off-road competition, having recently won the famous Dakar three years in a row. The German automaker also had a successful campaign in the WRC during the 1980's.
"In two years the Polo has become a global brand," explained Volkswagen's head of marketing, Luca de Meo. "The WRC is a global platform and this is one very important reason from a marketing and brand point of view we supported this project. With 13 races on four continents this event has enormous media impact. It is broadcast in more than 80 counties - I think more than 500 million people are enthusiastic about it - but this is just the beginning. It is for sure one of the most important event platforms in the world."