Further asphalt success for Märtin and Ford-Michelin
A second asphalt win for Markko Märtin in as many weeks has not only clinched runner-up honours for Ford-Michelin in the 2004 Manufacturers' World Championship but has it also promoted the Estonian to within a mere three points of Petter Solberg in the fight for the silver medal in the Drivers' classification. Märtin inherited the lead this weekend in Catalonia when early pacesetter Sébastien Loeb (Citroën-Michelin) was eliminated by a holed sump on the morning of Day 2. After that, all eyes then turned to the storming scrap for 2nd place between Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot-Michelin) and Carlos Sainz (Citroën-Michelin) who took the flag in that order. Michelin continued its domination on asphalt with another grand slam year following its wins in Germany, Corsica and the wintry Monte Carlo. Subaru-Michelin privateer Stéphane Sarrazin (4th) pushed the point home by completing the Spanish round ahead of Solberg's factory Impreza WRC running on rival tyres.
Markko Märtin and Ford-Michelin have proved that their win two weeks ago in Corsica owed nothing to the fact that their main opponent, Sébastien Loeb, had his sights set more on claiming the necessary points to clinch the 2004 Drivers' and Manufacturers' titles than gunning for outright victory.
This time round, with both crowns crown safely secured on the Mediterranean island, the Frenchman and his Citroën-Michelin team-mate Carlos Sainz were given a free rein to drive as they saw fit and Loeb effectively emerged in front at the end of the opening leg, tailed however by Märtin by a mere 2 seconds, while Belgian Focus WRC driver François Duval had momentarily led before retiring at the end of Day 1 following an off.
The second leg kicked off with the promise of a thrilling duel for top spot and Loeb was quick to claim fastest time on the day's opening test. But his challenge was to go no further: ding the stage, the freshly-crowned champ had run over a rock and damaged his sump. With no oil left in the engine, retirement was inevitable.
With two-thirds of the event remaining, the incident left Märtin with a comfortable cushion, leaving him in a position to control from in front with relative ease to collect his third win of the season at Sunday afternoon's finish in Lloret de Mar. The results also ensure 2nd place for Ford-Michelin and a one-two for Michelin in the final 2004 Manufacturers' standings, while the Estonian himself is still very much in contention for 2nd spot in the Drivers' points table with a single round remaining (Australia, Nov 12-14).
With Loeb out of the running, the attention of the Spanish spectators turned to the raging battle between on-form Peugeot-Michelin driver Marcus Grönholm and local hero Carlos Sainz (Citroën-Michelin). Competing on his home event for the final time before retiring at the end of the year, the Spaniard closed the gap over his Finnish rival from 19 seconds at the start of Day 2 to 9 seconds going into the final loop of stages, but a string of three fastest times from three on Sunday afternoon ultimately earned Grönholm 2nd place, his team's best result on asphalt with the 307 WRC.
One of the star drives of the weekend came from French Subaru-Michelin privateer Stéphane Sarrazin (4th) who frequently outpaced the factory Impreza WRC of Petter Solberg (5th) which was running on rival tyres. The former F1 driver pushed the point home on Sunday by recording Subaru's only fastest stage time of the weekend! A special mention, finally, for the Mitsubishi-Michelin team which saw two of its drivers - Dani Sola (6th) and Gianni Galli (7th) - finish in the points.
MICHELIN'S 2004 'CLEAR' ASPHALT CLEAN SWEEP
Germany, Corsica, and now Spain. In addition to extending its run of success on 'clear' asphalt to 20 wins from 21 rallies since the introduction of the 'FP' generation of its asphalt range in October 1998, Michelin also completed another season undefeated on sealed surfaces.
Its 'clear' asphalt wins in 2004 were the work of two different drivers (Markko Märtin 2, Sébastien Loeb 1) and two different teams (Ford, Citroën).
In addition to claiming the top four places (at least.) in Germany, Corsica and Catalonia, Michelin also triumphed on the wintry Monte Carlo Rally in January (Loeb, Citroën).
Wet, dry and damp. As in Corsica and Germany, Michelin's range proved the perfect match for the mixed bag of conditions faced by competitors in Catalonia which ranged from wet and damp to completely dry.
Michelin runners not only led from start to finish, but they also monopolised the final podium and set fastest time over every one of the nineteen stages, relegating the best-placed non-Michelin runner to over 3 minutes behind the overall winner.
Aimé Chatard, Rallies Manager, Michelin Competition. "Once again, the individual quota of tyres - which was eighty in Spain - gave drivers a comprehensive choice that covered all the different conditions encountered during the weekend. At the same time, the diversity of our products, which included the new evolutions introduced in Corsica, as well as the broad range of surface types over which they were competitive gave our partners the edge from start to finish. Every one of our WRC partner teams - Ford, Peugeot, Citroën, Mitsubishi, Skoda and Subaru France - posted at least one top-three time this weekend!"
A fastest time for Subaru. with Michelin. Stéphane Sarrazin went one better this weekend than in Corsica where he succeeded in splitting the two factory Subarus with his privately-entered, Michelin-shod car. Again benefiting from the same choices as Michelin's official partners, not only did the Frenchman frequently outpace both works Impreza WRCs on the stages, but he also recorded the marque's only fastest time of the rally and finished ahead of both Solberg and Hirvonen in the final classification.
Next round: Australia (November 12th-14th 2004)