By David C. Schilke
The two Citroen drivers were separated by 2.2 seconds heading into the last leg of the historic Acropolis Rally. Sebastien Loeb held the lead but also the challenge of running first on the roads. His teammate, Sebastien Ogier, had the advantage starting second today, and sure enough gained the lead over the five stages ran. In the end Ogier took the Acropolis Rally victory, along with three extra points for winning the event’s Power Stage. Loeb had to settle for second, earning his 100th podium finish in the World Rally Championship. Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen was able to move into third, ousting privateer Petter Solberg from the final podium spot.
“This perfect result, rewarded by twenty-eight points, is going to do our championship hopes a lot of good!” smiled Ogier. “I’d really like to thank the whole team for two things. One, it gave Seb and I the same chances to battle for victory, and I’m proud to have honoured their trust with a win. Secondly, I have to underline the reliability of the DS3 WRC, which had a problem-free three days in a race that was run at high speed.”
This perfect result, rewarded by twenty-eight points, is going to do our championship hopes a lot of good!
Yesterday’s action saw the drivers undertake a night stage on the sandy Grecian roads. Ogier faced reduced visibility from dust kicked up into the air and decided to back off rather than risking all to stretch out a lead. Instead he slowed down enough to let Loeb past, putting the reigning champ into the lead on the final day. Loeb was disappointed, but faced the challenge.
In the two morning stages the pair traded fast times, putting them right where they had started. At the time it looked as if Loeb may be able to hold on for the win but in the afternoon his pace simply could not match Ogier’s. At the end of the penultimate stage Ogier was 10 seconds ahead and clearly in the lead. The fight between the pair was now centered on the three extra points to be earned on the Power Stage.
This last stage of the event truly showed how great of a fight these two Seb’s can have. With both cars serviced and ready to sprint it was up to the drivers to be faster than his rival. To the amazement of the spectators it appeared the two Citroens set the same time! Looking closer Ogier claimed the stage win, but only barely, the end difference was a mere 0.009s. Ogier walked away with a maximum points haul, leaving Loeb to wonder how it may have played out if Ogier hadn’t lost time Saturday night.
“Before the start I wasn’t gunning for outright victory above all else,” said Loeb. “I gave everything I had, but race circumstances meant that I wasn’t able to fight on equal terms. I still think I was the quickest. The twenty points I’ve scored will help me open up the gap over Mikko Hirvonen even further.”
The gap has increased but Hirvonen is still trying to keep the fight alive. The Ford driver made quick work of Solberg for third and then pushed like mad to close the gap to Loeb. He got under three seconds of the Citroen driver but had to settle for third. As the Seb’s battled for the Power Stage win, Hirvonen clocked in 4 tenths slower for third, earning an extra point for his efforts.
"It was a great fight and I took big risks today to try to close the gaps, driving over every bank and rock," said Hirvonen. "There's no way I would have survived all three days driving like that! It's the second consecutive rally where I've lost a final day battle by a handful of seconds and that's frustrating. It was a rough and extremely hot rally, but that's normal here, and the car worked perfectly all weekend."
So far this year Solberg has always been a bridesmaid, never a bride. The privateer Citroen driver does quite well in the beginning but as attrition sets in the smaller resources of his team becomes apparent. The Norwegian gives each event his signature brand of ‘maximum attack’ but he’s still looking for his first win as a privateer against the factory teams.
“To be honest, it has been a good weekend,” said Solberg. “For sure I was hoping for a win, and I’m very disappointed not even being on the podium, but that is how it is. I have pushed really hard all weekend, and am happy with the performance, but sadly it is not good enough. We also had a problem free run this weekend, which is good. The team has done a really good job. Will look forward to Finland now, and the two test-days planned prior to that.”
Henning Solberg, brother to Petter, returned to the WRC this weekend in fine form and took fifth in his Stobart M-Sport Ford Fiesta. Sixth was teammate Matthew Wilson, in all the M-Sport boys had a fantastic rally. Kimi Raikkonen impressed with a strong seventh place finish in his Citroen, while Juho Hanninen took eighth overall.
Jari-Matti Latvala finished in the points in ninth after a challenging event. The Finn showed he had great pace by taking four of today’s stage wins but his luck on Friday and Saturday saw him drop down the order. For sure he’ll be looking forward to better luck at his home event. Dennis Kuipers rounded out the top ten for the FERM Power Tools Fiesta.
"It was a hard weekend, but despite my technical troubles, I finished in the points and I'm relieved to be here," explained Latvala. "I had a good pace and targeted the bonus points in the Power Stage, but it just wasn't our rally. The Greek Gods were not looking after me at all here.”
Perhaps the Finnish Gods will smile on Latvala more favorably for Rally Finland. The WRC circus will take a month long break with many teams planning on testing and improving their setups. They will all be back for the fastest rally on the calendar in the final weekend in July.