WRC

Loeb two minutes ahead after rough start to Cyprus

Loeb two minutes ahead after rough start to Cyprus

Sebastien Loeb is conmfortably ahead after the first leg of Cyprus Rally, the sixth event on the 2005 World Rally Championship calendar. The 2004 champion has his Citroen Xsara WRC just over two minutes ahead of Citroen privateer Manfred ...

Sebastien Loeb is conmfortably ahead after the first leg of Cyprus Rally, the sixth event on the 2005 World Rally Championship calendar. The 2004 champion has his Citroen Xsara WRC just over two minutes ahead of Citroen privateer Manfred Stohl.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
It was not easy. The terrain and the roads are some of the roughest on the WRC schedule, and while Loeb fared better than most of his competitors, there was no chance to relax one's vigilance.

"The stages are just as we left them last year," Loeb recounted. "Today's test [SS1/SS4, 38 km in total] through Lagoudera/Spilia] was the worst of all. Incredible! Even driving at a snail's pace it was an absolute bone-shaker. There's no gravel left. We're driving directly over rocks!"

Loeb took the honors at the 2004 Cyprus Rally, and a repeat certainly looks likely after one day of competition. Some of his key challengers -- such as 2003 Cyprus winner Marcus Gronholm and 2004 winner Petter Solberg -- have fallen by the wayside.

Gronholm barely made it onto the first stage before his Peugeot 307 WRC gave up the ghost, the camshaft belt failing just six kilometres into the stage.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
"There was nothing I could do," rued the Finn. "The engine gradually lost power and the water temperature rose steadily for about six or seven kilometres before it died altogether. Before that I saw from our screen that we were fastest on the split times, without pushing especially hard. The car and tyres work well in conditions which are quite awful: the first part of the stage reminded me of the Safari in Kenya!"

Solberg was looking fairly good for much of the day. He scored the win on the first stage -- the only one that Loeb didn't win -- and although he steadily fell oFf the Frenchman's pace, he was in third place after the penultimate stage of the day. It was all for naught when his Subaru Impreza developed an electrical problem on the final stage of the day.

"It's very disappointing," the downcast Solberg explained. "Today has been so difficult I can't really believe it. The conditions were terrible; it was an effort just to complete the stages, as they were so rough. We had worked hard to prepare for this rally, but we weren't expecting any of the problems that we have encountered today."

Meanwhile, Stohl is on top of the world. The Austrian is in a strong position for a podium finish -- and a career-best finish for the 32-year-old.

"I still don't believe this result," Stohl said. "But I'm feeling much more confident in the Citroen right now which enables me to approach the limit. Furthermore, we made an excellent choice of tyres. Since I go easy on my tyres I can use narrower tyres than other teams. That does make a difference here."

Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports.
In third place is "the other Solberg" -- Petter's brother Henning, who had a strong day in his Ford Focus RS WRC04, finishing the first leg three minutes adrift of Loeb, but still 15 seconds ahead of the other works Peugeot of Markko Martin.

"I'm happy to be the best Solberg tonight!" Henning exclaimed. "I've had a few tyre troubles but the car has been really strong. I should have a good road position tomorrow and I'm looking forward to it."

Martin, three minutes and 16 seconds behind Loeb, is one of the few leading drivers still within reach of the Frenchman. Francois Duval, in the second works Citroen is in sixth, separated from Martin by Ford privateer Antony Warmbold.

Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) and Toni Gardemeister (Ford) complete the points-paying positions, but the duo is more than five minutes off the pace, making a serious challenge to Loeb an unlikely scenario.

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