Loeb Makes a comeback
Sébastien Loeb and his Citroen are the comeback kings of the Rally of Mexico at the weekend (11-13 March 2005) after a staggering final day performance saw the Frenchman take an average of half a second per kilometre out of his two main rivals to leap frog into fourth place after a disastrous first day had dropped him back to 18th place in the second round of the World Rally Championship.
Loeb's woes allowed Petter Solberg and his Subaru to enjoy total dominance in Mexico, but Loeb's comeback performance shows that had it not been for a broken strut on day one, the event could have been so much closer. For the second year running, Mexico has proven to be a tough event for the Citroen team and Loeb in particular.
"I really like this rally in Mexico," said Loeb at the end of day one. "But it does not like me!"
The rally started well for Citroen with Loeb setting the second fastest time on stage two and team mate Duval in fourth position. Then it all went cactus-shaped ....
A cracked strut mounting left Loeb's rear-right wheel with excessive camber after SS1 and the long road section that followed ended up destroying the tyre. For SS2 ('La Esperanza'), the French crew put on the spare wheel but it too suffered the same fate and Loeb was forced to tackle the loop's third test, 'Santana', on three wheels and one rim, although they took the precaution of neutralising the offending corner's brakes.
Loeb succeeded in nursing the car back to service where the technical team restored it to perfect condition, including a complete transmission change. But the incident had proved costly in terms of time, the crew dropping more than four minutes in total.
On Day Two it was Duval's turn to feel the Mexican Pain.
On Stage 8 the crew had felt a big knock underneath the car but the incident had no immediate consequences since they were able to complete the following test (SS9, 'Derramadero/Chichimequillas') at normal speed. Back at the Leon service park, the car's underbody protection effectively showed signs of the impact and was promptly replaced along with the radiator and the front crossmember. However, on the road section out to the first stage of the day's second loop, the engine temperature began to rise and, after consulting the team, Duval decided not to start SS10. As permitted by the 2005 regulations, the Xsara was penalised five minutes for each missed special stage, but could attend the evening service and following repairs, continue on Day 3.
By Saturday evening, after dropping down the order on Leg 1, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena had already succeeded in carving their way back up to 6th place. To stand a chance of progressing even further up the leaderboard, the challenge was simple: they needed to take 36 seconds off Harri Rovanperä and 37.4s off Toni Gardemeister over the final day's two stages which totalled 62.65 km; an average of just under half a second per kilometre.
While the first of these two tests - Comanjilla/Chichimequillas' - was relatively short, the second - 'Alfaro/El Establo' - was quite simply the longest of the event and the organisers had programmed it at the very end with a view to keeping up the suspense all the way to the finish.
Over the 18.26 km of SS13 ('Chichimequillas'), Seb posted the fastest time, beating Rovanperä by 9.9s and Gardemeister by 12.8s. At that point, the Frenchman was on the necessary pace to pass both drivers, but he still had approximately 26s to claw back and his rivals were not going to give up without a fight.
But at the El Establo Stop Control at the end of the 44.39 km Alfaro test after producing yet another amazing effort, Seb claimed a further fastest time and, more significantly, successfully pipped the two Finns at the post to claim 4th place.
"After Friday's problems, we would have gladly signed for 4th place without the slightest hesitation," confesses Guy Fréquelin who made no attempt to conceal his relief. "What Seb and Daniel have done is remarkable. The way they fought their way back was true art. I take my hat off to them both!"
"I have been pushing very hard since yesterday," confirmed Seb, visibly delighted. "And today I turned it up a further notch. I honestly drove the final stage as though victory depended on it. It was a near-perfect run, perhaps one of the best of my career! Finishing 4th allows me to stay on the heels of the championship leaders and also keeps Citroën in the frame."
François Duval's Xsara was fitted with a new radiator on Saturday, but the Belgian dropped way down the order because of the time penalties incurred for missing three stages (SS10, 11 and 12). His mission on the final day was to drive at a moderate pace with a view to evaluating the reliability of his car which wasn't 100% certain. However, the young Belgian preferred to withdraw after completing the final stage and the technical team will now take time to examine his engine in detail before the next round.
"They say problems come in threes," says Duval. "I've now done three rallies without being able to defend my chances all the way to the flag and the championship will really begin for me in New Zealand. That said, this was my first outing on gravel with the Xsara. My pace allowed me to compete for 3rd place before my problems. That gives an idea of the potential of the car and the team and that is reassuring concerning my familiarisation with both."