Sebastien Loeb easily took his first victory of the 2006 World Rally Championship season at Rally Mexico, after having been shut out for the first two events of the season. The Kronos Citroen Xsara WRC pilot secured the win with a margin of 48.9 seconds over Subaru's Petter Solberg.
Loeb had an early battle on Friday with Marcus Gronholm for third place, while Solberg fought for the lead with Mikko Hirvonen. However, Gronholm and Hirvonen, both driving for the Ford works team, ran off the road -- Gronholm on the first leg, Hirvonen on the second -- incurring penalties of 20 and 30 minutes, respectively.
That left the leadership battle to Solberg and Loeb, and battle they did, throughout Saturday, until Solberg lost his power steering after hitting a rock on SS13, dropping 30 seconds back by the end of the second leg.
"I am very, very happy with the result," Solberg reflected. "Of course we set out to win but when that wasn't possible we kept pushing for second. I went flat out on leg one to get a gap and it was unlucky to pick up the problem on the second day, but I tried hard to keep the time loss to a minimum."
Yet, Loeb wasn't content to sit back on today's final leg. On the two conventional stages totaling 56 km and a final superspecial, the French two-time WRC champion stretched his lead by another 12 seconds.
The win was the first for the Belgian Kronos Citroen team, although many of the team personnel followed Loeb to Kronos from the all-conquering Citroen works squad at the end of the 2005 season.
Loeb and Solberg were accompanied on the podium by third-placed Manfred Stohl. The Austrian scored his first WRC podium of 2006 in his OMV-entered Peugeot 307 WRC -- and a win in the final superspecial -- albeit more than four and a half minutes adrift of Loeb.
Daniel Sordo took fourth in the second Kronos entry, 48 seconds behind Stohl.
Behind the top four, though, the gaps got much bigger. The elder Solberg, Henning, was fifth in the second OMV Peugeot, 12:35 off the pace, and Irish privateer Gareth Machale scored a career-best sixth, 16 minutes behind Loeb, in a 2005-spec Ford Focus.
Behind Machale there were two drivers who has expected to finish much higher: Subaru's Chris Atkinson and Ford's Gronholm. Atkinson crashed out on Friday's fifth stage and incurred a 15-minute penalty under the SupeRally regulations, taking him out of podium contention, but drove steadily to move from 19th after the first leg to seventh at the finish.
Gronholm had an extra five minutes to make up, and the Finn didn't fool around. On today's final leg, he was easily the second-fastest driver, behind only Loeb, and moved up to eighth place, 65 seconds behind Atkinson, to score a valuable championship point.
"This was the first gravel rally for me with the new Focus," Gronholm said. "We tried a number of small things. The car seems to be good, and I am happy with that, but driver mistakes are not good!"
Loeb takes the championship lead with the victory, with 26 points to Gronholm's 21, with Stohl in third at 11 points. Kronos also takes the manufacturers' lead from Ford, 34-30, with Ford scoring only four points on the weekend. OMV is in third at 21 points, just one ahead of the Subaru works team.