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Loeb takes Portugal win as Fords are penalized

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Loeb takes Portugal win as Fords are penalized

Sebastien Loeb dominated the final two days at Rally Portugal to close up the gap in the standings on current leader Marcus Gronholm. After five World Rally Championship events, Gronholm held a mere two-point lead for this year's championship...

Sebastien Loeb dominated the final two days at Rally Portugal to close up the gap in the standings on current leader Marcus Gronholm. After five World Rally Championship events, Gronholm held a mere two-point lead for this year's championship over the French rally ace.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, Citroen Total WRT, Citroen C4 WRC, Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautianen, BP Ford, Ford Focus WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
What's more, shortly after the finish, that turned into a one-point advantage for Loeb, who is aiming for his fourth consecutive title, as the FIA assessed a five-minute penalty for each of the Ford Focus RS WRC 06 teams for a technical violation.

"Today's result is very positive in championship terms," Loeb smiled at the finish, happy even before the penalty was announced.

"My setup wasn't ideally suited to the terrain during Friday's first loop," he continued. "We managed to fine-tune the b alance and it was much more to my liking after that. It is as easy to drive as ever and our work, notably on the suspension, has enabled us to improve its traction. The change from dry to very wet conditions didn't pose a problem for us. We were well informed about the changes in the weather and that enabled us to anticipate and make two very good tyre choices."

The Focus entries were all discovered to have rear-quarter glass with a thickness of 3 mm rather than the required 3.5mm, thusfailing the scrutineering check by 0.5 mm (0.2 inches). FIA assessed a penalty of five minutes to each of the entries, plus a reprimand to the entrants, the BP Ford works team and the Stobart M-Sport team.

"Rules are rules," said Mikko Hirvonen, who had finished third on the road in the second works Focus. "Everybody knows, though, what kind of effect 0.5 mm thinner rear glass has on performance. But the error was made at the glass manufacturer, and the team did not notice it."

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautianen, BP Ford, Ford Focus WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Gronholm, in the lead Focus, would have liked to stop the dominant Loeb, and to eventually earn his third WRC crown. The Ford Focus factory team lead driver had the edge on the opening day but in the end, he was 37.1 seconds adrift of Loeb. With the penalty, he fell to fourth, behind Petter Solberg and Daniel Sordo, and, more critically, lost three championship points.

On the final leg of five stages, Loeb won two specials, including the short 2.03km superspecial final stage. The Frenchman did not have to push too hard in his Citroen C4 as he held a lead of over 40 seconds at the end of leg two yesterday.

"It was pretty much a perfect weekend for us," commented Loeb. "My set-up wasn't ideally suited to the terrain during Friday's first loop but we managed to fine-tune the balance and it was much more to my liking after that."

Gronholm could only maintain his second position on the road, taking two stage wins. His younger teammate Hirvonen earned the first stage win of the rally today (SS14).

"The first day was good, especially considering our road position and a broken shock absorber," Gronholm recounted. "But then I lost time with bad tyre choices on leg two and I couldn't regain the time. I was quite careful today because I had nothing to gain and everything to lose."

Daniel Sordo and Marc Marti, Citroen Total WRT, Citroen C4 WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"If we want to win the championship, we have to win rallies," he continued. "We can't afford to make mistakes because we can't give Loeb any advantage at all if we want to come first."

The final day was really quiet after the first two days, with the top five just maintaining the status quo. The younger of the two Finnish drivers landed the final podium slot. Hirvonen appears to have come into his own this year with consecutive top finishes after earning his second career victory at this year's inaugural Rally Norway.

Over one minute off the pace of Hirvonen's Ford was Subaru's Petter Solberg. The 2003 WRC champion had his new Impreza WRC 2007 in the top five in its second rally with nearly a two-minute lead over Daniel Sordo. After the penalties were assessed, the two earned belated podium positions, second and third respectively.

With the Stobart entries of Jari-Matti Latvala and Henning Solberg losing five minutes as well, privateers Daniel Carlsson and Gigi Galli took sixth and seventh places, respectively, in their 2005-spec Citroen Xsara WRCs.

Daniel Carlsson and Denis Giraudet, OMV Kronos Citroen WRT, Citroen Xsara WRC.
Photo by Citro?n Communication.
Carlsson, driving for OMV Kronos, was satisfied with his performance: "It was a very difficult rally and I am happy that we were able to finish it within scoring ranks. We have scored at all three rallies that we have competed in this year."

Latvala, one of the revelations of the 2007 season so far, was eighth after the penalties, having now scored points in three of the five rallies so far. His more experienced teammate, Henning Solberg, the brother of Subaru works driver Petter, was ninth in the secodn Stobart entry.

"I think I have improved a lot each day," Latvala said. "Today I was actually trying to drive slower than yesterday and we were setting better times, I think we were pushing too hard then and over-driving the car but today the notes and everything just worked."

The series now takes a month's break, and will resume in five weeks' time at Rally Argentina, which is sure to provide another exciting duel between Loeb and Gronholm.

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