WRC

Loeb wins Rally Australia, ties Auriol's record

Loeb wins Rally Australia, ties Auriol's record

On the final day of Rally Australia it was just a matter of concentrating and driving carefully, and Sebastien Loeb took care of business, adding a sixth World Rally Championship victory this year to his 2004 WRC ...

On the final day of Rally Australia it was just a matter of concentrating and driving carefully, and Sebastien Loeb took care of business, adding a sixth World Rally Championship victory this year to his 2004 WRC drivers' championship.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
"After Marcus (Gronholm) went out, it was quite difficult for me to concentrate, because there was no one to fight against," Loeb recounted the rally. "I dropped my pace off, but then I spun, so I realized that was not the way to go."

The six victories tie the mark set by Didier Auriol in 1992 in the then-dominant Lancia Delta Integrale HF. Auriol took six of the ten WRC events in that year, with Carlos Sainz -- who is retiring at the end of this year -- taking two in a Toyota Celica.

Loeb tied the record with wins in Monte Carlo, Sweden, Cyprus, Turkey, Germany and Australia. Six wins out of 16 rallies is not quite as dominant, but with today's grueling WRC schedule, Auriol's 60% winning record may not be matched for a very long time.

"It's nice to share the record with Didier Auriol," the Citroen Xsara pilot smiled. "As a driver, it is always nice to get statistics like this!"

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Coincidentally, not only did Loeb match Auriol's record, but he is also the first French WRC drivers' champion since Auriol took the title in 1994, two years after his record-setting season. Loeb finished the season with 118 points, an impressive 36 points ahead of his nearest rival, Subaru's Petter Solberg.

In Rally Australia, it really was no contest for the victory once Loeb's key opponents fell by the wayside. Solberg and Markko Martin (Ford) retired on Friday, and early rally leader Gronholm (Peugeot) spun off on Saturday morning, leaving Loeb with more than a minute advantage over the next man, Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera at the beginning of the second leg.

At the finish, Loeb was a more-than-comfortable 1:55 ahead of Rovanpera, who was still quite satisfied with a second place, his best finish in a troubled year.

Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
"It's been a very good rally for us," Rovanpera explained at the finish. "The main thing is that the car has been very reliable, which has allowed us to push with confidence and fight at the front. We've had no problems at all on this rally, apart from a couple of small mistakes which cost us a little bit of time."

"Today was quite a tough day because of the high temperatures and tricky stages," the Finn continued. "We just concentrated on keeping our position. After a difficult year, it is good to end on a positive note!"

Ford's Francois Duval took the final podium position, 3:40 behind Duval and 1:45 behind Rovanpera's pace, while Mikko Hirvonen, piloting the second Subaru Impreza, matched his career best finish with a fourth place, six minutes behind the winner.

Local hero Chris Atkinson took fifth in a rather more pedestrian Subaru -- an Impreza WRX -- but nearly 17 minutes behind the pace of Loeb's works Citroen Xsara. Xavier Pons (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo) and Cody Crocker (Subary Impreza WRX) were hot on Atkinson's tail, 41 and 47 seconds behind respectively.

Toshihiro Arai, driving a Production Cup-spec Impreza WRX, took not only the Production honors but also the eighth and final points-paying position.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
Solberg and Gronholm both returned for the final day, under the 2004 restart system, to get some more testing mileage under their cars, even if they were now out of the rally.

Solberg continued the blistering pace he had shown on Saturday's stages, and set four of the six fastest stage times, with Gronholm close behind on most stages.

On the penultimate stage, though, Bannister North Long, Gronholm went off the road near the beginning of the stage, barrel-rolling the Peugeot 307 and ending the event with car sitting on its roof. Gronholm and co-pilot Timo Raitiainen got out of the car without any need for help, but were nevertheless dispatched to a hospital for precautionary checks.

And so Rally Australia wraps up the 2004 World Rally season. The teams, except for Citroen, will now be heading back to home base to hatch plans for ending the Loeb-Citroen domination, and challenging for the 2005 title.

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