Markko Martin, never known as a tarmac specialist, took his second win in a row, and again on an asphalt rally, claiming the Rally Catalunya victory by 23.2 seconds over Marcus Gronholm. The win is Martin's third in the World Rally Championship this season and moves him within three points of second place in the drivers' championship.
So the team decided to set a cautious pace -- good for avoiding stray rocks and other hazards, but potentially dangerous to a driver's concentration. Most famous example may be Ayrton Senna's crash in Monaco GP while in a massive lead over the rest of the Formula One field ...
"I drove to the split times of the other drivers, which the team sent to us," Martin explained. "I just matched their pace and drove carefully. As a result I probably drove badly, because it's more difficult to drive relatively slowly than it is when you drive at normal pace."
Martin did set the fastest time on SS17, the first pass through Viladrau, at 2:23.7, and the care with which he was driving was clear on the second pass through the same stage, SS20, when Martin slowed down to 22:44.3, 13.3 seconds behind Gronholm.
And slippery it was, still so on the final day. The roads were wet but drying in the morning, and Gronholm, who was trying to push Martin to make a mistake, was faced with a difficult tire choice.
"It was certainly the safe choice," the Estonian reflected of his choice of intermediate tires. "Maybe a cut slick would have been better, but it has been difficult to choose the right tyres throughout the event because of the changing weather."
In the early morning hours, on the first loop of the day (Sant Boi de Llucanes, La Roca and Viladrau special stages), the intermediates did cost Gronholm, who dropped another 3.4 seconds to Martin, and third-placed Carlos Sainz was able to inch his Citroen Xsara another 2.2 seconds closer to Gronholm.
"I'm quite satisfied," Gronholm recapped his Catalunya experience. "We did terribly in Corsica, and we have progressed quite a bit from there. We are definitely heading in the right direction now, which is very encouraging. I'm also very pleased that we had no mechanical problems at all during the three days of the event. It's very positive sign for the future that gives me a lot of confidence."
Sainz, who is retiring from WRC competition at the end of the year, took his eighth podium of the year in his home event, bringing points home for Citroen after Loeb's retirement on Saturday.
The Spaniard has been a model of consistency this year, and in spite of only a single win this year (in Rally Argentina) he still has an outside chance of catching Petter Solberg for second place in the championship.
"For us, this was a rally full of emotion," continued Sainz. "The last time through these special stages, in front of my fans. The result doesn't really matter, in the end!"
As for Petter Solberg, who has matched Loeb with five WRC wins this year, but trails Loeb -- who clinched the championship at the last rally -- by 26 points, it was a rally to forget. Solberg never got his Subaru Impreza and Pirelli tires to work to his satisfaction, and struggled for grip and speed throughout the event, in the end finishing fifth.
"It's been a difficult weekend. We got back in one piece, with some points and gathered some useful data," the 2003 champion recalled. "Of course I know that we have the potential to do so much better. Now, though, it's time to re-focus on the next event. We won Australia before, we've dominated the last few gravel rallies and I'm hungry for another rally win."
The final points positions were filled by the three young pilots driving for factory teams who are in their rebuilding years: Daniel Sola and Gianluigi Gallo, piloting Mitsubishi Lancers, and Toni Gardemeister in a Skoda Fabia.
The series now shifts to the gravel roads of Rally Australia for the WRC season finale. While Loeb and Citroen have the championships locked away, there is a fight still brewing over second place in the standings, and Australia should turn out to be spectacular.