WRC

Loeb runs away with the lead in Catalunya

Loeb runs away with the lead in Catalunya

Sebastien Loeb occupies his usual position at the end of Saturday's second leg of Rally Catalunya: first. But what is less usual is that the World Rally Champion is not only on top, he is leading a Citroen 1-2-3 charge atop the ...

Sebastien Loeb occupies his usual position at the end of Saturday's second leg of Rally Catalunya: first. But what is less usual is that the World Rally Champion is not only on top, he is leading a Citroen 1-2-3 charge atop the rally standings.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Loeb's teammate, Francois Duval, remained behind him in second place, as the Belgian has driven a solid rally and the competitors have literally fallen by the wayside. And local favorite, Xavier Pons, known as Xevi to his friends and fellow rallyists, claimed third place at the end of the leg in his privateer Citroen Xsara WRC.

Loeb himself has been in a class of his own for the entire event, taking three of five stage wins today -- not counting SS7, which was canceled as the spectators were crowding onto the route -- and eight of eleven overall. He extended his lead over Duval slightly on the day, to almost 58 seconds.

"There are still 68km to go, and we've already done them once," Loeb reflected. "But before being certain of scoring a possible tenth win, there are still some potentially difficult tyre choices to make and hazards to avoid. Yesterday, we had our biggest scare of the year. Remembering that will force us to stay on our guard!"

Fran?ois Duval and Sven Smeets.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Duval was a model of consistency today, answering some of the past criticism leveled at the young Belgian. On the Catalunyan roads, though, Duval's driving has combined with some astute choices of Michelin tires to keep him consistently ahead of the rival teams.

"We just had to take things very carefully because of the incessant changes of grip," Duval recounted. "Running fifteenth on the road, the surface was very dirty. Even running at 90% didn't prevent the odd scare. You had to be on your toes all the time. It was so easy to be caught out..."

"The conditions weren't easy," he continued. "Tomorrow I will no doubt lift a little to make sure we score this fantastic result for Citroen!"

Pons, in his first year of driving a full WRC car -- he drove a Renault in JWRC last year -- had a strong day, moving from ninth at the end of the first leg to claim fifth at the end of the final stage, and then third following the final service stop of the day.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Team Peugeot.
Admittedly, though, the young Spaniard benefited from the rival teams' misfortunes: Marcus Gronholm retired from third place at the final service, and Mikko Hirvonen incurred a penalty at the same service, dropping him behind Pons. And before that, Toni Gardemeister's brakes failed while running in fourth, Roman Kresta spun twice to lose fifth place, and Gigi Galli ran off the road from fourth.

An eventful day indeed, and Pons was the man at the right place at the right time to take advantage of it, but he will have his work cut out for him tomorrow. Hirvonen, driving a privateer 2003-spec Ford Focus, is only 7.7 seconds behind Pons, but Pons will have the advantage of local knowledge, giving the ingredients for a hard fight to the finish.

"After service, there was light rain on the next stage and I find it difficult in damp conditions," the Finn admitted. "It's just a lack of confidence because I lack experience in that type of weather."

Still, Hirvonen was running in clear fourth position, and was elevated to third after the finish of SS12 when the Peugeot's radiator failed on the transit to the final service of the day taking Gronholm out of the picture. However, that was to be short-lived, as the M-Sport team had to change an oil pump drive belt in the final service, and missed the time allotment, incurring a 20-second penalty.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
"That was my second fastest time in the WRC," Hirvonen recounted. "When it's dry I can drive fast on the asphalt but if it's wet and damp tomorrow it will be hard to maintain my dry weather pace. I enjoy driving on asphalt because I'm confident with this car and the tyres and to be a WRC driver, you must be fast on both gravel and asphalt."

For Gronholm, though, it was another rally of heartbreak. After the gearbox failure last weekend in Corsica, this time his radiator gave up the ghost on the final transit stage, taking away a comfortable podium position for the two-time world champion, and any faint hope of a manufacturers' title for the team.

"Up to the very last stage it was a good day for us with Marcus in a comfortable third place and Nicolas (Bernardi) seventh," said Jean-Pierre Nicolas, the Peugeot team principal. "But Marcus was forced to retire on his way to the service park, after his engine overheated following a water leak from the radiator -- we don't yet know why."

But if it was a bad day for Peugeot, Ford suffered equally badly just when things appeared to be on pace for a top finish. Gardemeister and Kresta were running fourth and fifth entering SS10, with privateer Hirvonen in sixth place, when things fell apart.

Roman Kresta and Jan Mozny.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
Gardemeister suffered some bad luck when a rock wedged between a rear brake caliper and the brake spring, breaking off a part of the caliper and losing brake pressure. But it could have been much worse: he stopped literally on the edge of a precipe.

"The brake pedal went to the floor before a fourth gear corner," the Finn recounted. "The car went straight on and became stuck on top of a bank, with all four wheels off the ground! Beyond the bank was a 20 metre vertical drop and I was sitting pressing the brake pedal and waiting to go straight over the top."

"We were lucky," Gardemeister admitted, grimly. "The spectators did a great job to lift us back onto the road again. It's disappointing because with Gronholm's retirement, I could have been on the podium."

The Ford driver lost 12 minutes on the stage, though, falling back to 17th overall. He made up some positions through the day, but lies well out of the points, nearly 15 minutes behind Loeb and over 10 minutes adrift of Jan Kopecky, who holds the final points position in a Skoda Fabia WRC.

On the very same SS10, Kresta spun off the road -- for the second time today -- and into a ditch, losing 20 seconds and two places in the standings, before he was able to get back onto the course.

Gianluigi Galli and Guido D'Amore.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.
"The second incident was almost a big accident," he recalled the spin. "I made a mistake in a right-left curve and the car bounced across a ditch. It took 20 seconds to regain the road. The stages were similar to yesterday's but I couldn't make the same pace and the feeling wasn't as good."

Hirvonen, who has two fifth places to his credit this year, moved up steadily as well, keeping ahead of Pons on every stage bar the wet SS9, and setting the fastest stage time on SS12 -- only to lose the podium position shortly after claiming it.

And Mitsubishi's chances disappeared with Galli's freak crash, after the finish of SS8, with the Italian driving too fast to make the turn in his Lancer WRC.

"It was a long corner which tightened more than we had indicated in our pace notes, basically a wrong note from the recce," Galli admitted. "The most disappointing thing is that we don't get the opportunity to learn more and get better experience, as we will be back here for the rally again in six months."

Mitsubishi's team leader, Harri Rovanpera, is struggling with handling problems, to add to yesterday's gearbox woes, and is well back in 10th place. With a minute and a half gap to Kopecky, Rovanpera's only hope is for some more rival team retirements tomorrow.

At the end of the leg, then, Loeb is in place to win a record 10th WRC event in one season, with Duval and Pons following for a Citroen wave for the podium, setting the stage for Citroen to clinch the manufacturers' championship at the finish.

Hirvonen and Kresta follow in the two Fords, with Peugeot's junior driver, Bernardi, in sixth. Antony Warmbold, in a privateer Ford Focus is seventh, with Kopecky eighth, and gunning for Warmbold.

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