The island of Cyprus was the private domain of Sebastien Loeb this weekend, as the 2004 World Rally Champion scored a dominant victory for Citroen in Cyprus Rally, the sixth event on this year's calendar.
Even more impressive was his consistency on the highly rocky Cyprus roads: Loeb was fastest on every single stage from SS2 to SS15, and it was only in today's final three stages that the champion eased off enough to allow other drivers to challenge for stage wins as well.
"I would say that today's stages aren't as rough as Friday's but still a bit more rocky and difficult than yesterday's," the Frenchman explained at the midday break. "No problem with my Citroen. I drive at a reasonable pace for the car to be easy to drive and I almost go round the stones not to break anything."
Stohl, a 32-year Austrian privateer, scored a career-best result with a solid second place, 32 seconds ahead of Peugeot works drive Markko Martin. Stohl, in his first year campaigning a Citroen, had a previously best result of 7th overall in the 2003 Rally of Great Britain.
"I'm not one to show my feelings, but I'm thrilled to bits inside!," Stohl beamed after crossing the finish line. "I am pleased that I succeeded in holding off first Solberg and then Martin. To finish 2nd in such a difficult rally is just incredible!"
Martin, on the other hand, knew that he would have to fight hard to get onto the podium, and to claim eight manufacturers' points for Peugeot (Stohl, being a privateer, did not score manufacturers' points for Citroen). In fourth place to start the day, and 18 seconds adrift of Henning Solberg's Ford Focus, the Estonian was on the attack early, and by midpoint of the day, had laid claim to third position. He finished with a flourish, scoring a stage win on the penultimate stage.
"I knew that if I wanted to be on the podium I had to push hard today," Martin emphasized. "It was quite difficult, because I did not want to take any risks with the manufacturer points I already had in the bag for Peugeot."
Solberg, brother of world champion Petter, also scored a career-best finish with a fourth place, in spite of losing time with a malfunctioning drive-by-wire on SS13.
"I tried so hard to regain the time," Solberg explained, frustrated. "We took a gamble with our tyres this afternoon to try to catch Markko but it didn't work out. But I'm not disappointed with fourth, I'm really happy. My previous best result was fifth. Now I've finished fourth, so next it will be a podium!"
Behind the privateer Focus at the finish were Ford's two young works drivers, Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta. The two youngsters drove a solid day -- Gardemeister even winning SS16 and SS18 -- to secure a 5-6-7 finish for Ford, and some valuable manufacturers' championship points.
"The times might not suggest it, but I actually drove quite slowly today," Gardemeister described his day. "It's hard to find a good rhythm when the pace is not 100 per cent and you're driving at a speed so that you don't make a mistake. We weren't on full attack but couldn't drop our speed too much. But generally we've had a good pace and it's a pity we lost time with two punctures earlier in the event."
"This morning we made some adjustments to the differential mapping so that I could drive safely and try to reach the finish in the points," Tuohino explained at the finish. "I didn't try to push any harder than was necessary to keep Daniel Carlsson behind me but on SS17 the water temperature rose to 130 degrees and we had to switch to safe mode to finish the rally."
The number of privateers in the points allowed Tuohino (ninth) and Gilles Panizzi (eleventh) to still claim precious manufacturers' points for Skoda and Mitsubishi, respectively, even if they were out of the drivers' points.
In the standings, with key championship contenders -- and past WRC champions -- Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg out on the first day with engine failures, Loeb was able to consolidate his points lead and pull out an 11-point gap to Solberg and Martin.
However, with Francois Duval falling out on Saturday, Citroen was not able to take advantage of Solberg's and Gronholm's misfortune, and Peugeot continues to lead its fellow French marque. Ford moves into third, however, with Gardemeister's and Kresta's solid finish.
WRC now continues its journey across the Adriatic Sea, with a next stop in Turkey in three weeks' time.