Sebastien Loeb gave a major boost to his World Rally Championship crown hopes today with a win in Rallye Sanremo in Italy. Loeb put his Citroen Xsara in the lead on SS1 and kept it there, even with heavy competition first from the current world champion, Marcus Gronholm and later from Ford's Markko Martin.
Fortunately for Loeb, before the final two stages, he held over a minute edge over the field, except for Martin. And Martin also had to deal with the weather on the final two stages and could not make up ground on the leader.
"It was a very difficult end of the race," admitted Loeb. "I tried to stay on the road and do the same times as Martin. [Gilles] Panizzi was coming very, very fast."
The Frenchman is now just two points behind Peugeot's Richard Burns with three events remaining. Carlos Sainz, Loeb's teammate, is in third four points out of the overall lead, and Petter Solberg (Subaru) and Martin remain in the hunt. The victory today moved Citroen into the manufacturers' lead, four points over rival and reigning champions, Peugeot.
Panizzi knocked Sainz out of fourth place with his win on the very wet penultimate stage (SS13 -- Vignai 2), at 19:42, a time 28 seconds faster than Loeb and over a minute ahead of Sainz.
Peugeot played their tire tactics right, as Panizzi took on the optimal intermediate tires at the pre-stage service area and Gronholm choose to cut his tires. Gronholm finished second, Loeb third and Martin, Loeb's main challenger for the overall win, fourth.
The wet-weather tire bet held for the final stage as Panizzi continued his move to the top of the leaderboard from fifth overall at the end of SS12. The Peugeot driver won the SS14 final stage by 1:16 over Loeb and 1:28 over Martin, to clinch second overall, and dropping Martin to third.
"We chose the right tires when the rain came," Panizzi smiled at the end of the rally.
Gronholm who did not choose the intermediate tires that Panizzi picked went off on the final stage, hitting a rock and ending not only today's rally early but seriously damaging his chances of a third WRC title.
Most of the teams chose to remain on dry tires, writing off their chances of making gains on today's final stages.
Burns squeaked out a seventh overall finish to garner the two points that kept him in the lead for the drivers' championship. A lackluster performance by the former world champion during the rally changed on the final stage when Burns' gave the Peugeot all he could to finish in the points.
Martin was Loeb's main competitor and was highly disappointed in the final two stages after winning seven of the 14 stages during the event. "The last stage was just torrential rain from start to finish, we had dry weather tyres on the car," Martin said. "I just don't know how I stayed on the road. It was like going down a ski run with no skis."