Petter Solberg is clearly back in form, and his third consecutive World Rally Championship victory, in Rally Italia Sardinia, was clear proof of that. Solberg finished the event in his Subaru Impreza WRC 2004 literally miles ahead of the competition, with a gap of two minutes and eight seconds to second-placed Sebastien Loeb.
Loeb, piloting a Citroen Xsara WRC04, was able to beat Solberg on only two stages -- once by 2.1 seconds, and a second time by 1.6 seconds -- while Solberg's pace on the narrow, twisty Sardinian roads proved to be hard for anyone to match.
"It's been really hard work all the way - (co-driver Phil Mills) was cheering as we crossed the finish line, but I was still too focused on the driving to take it all in," Solberg explained at the finish. "It's been a very good few rallies, let me tell you, and it's a great feeling to take another win here, the team have been working so hard, and I think we've proved that we're the best team on gravel now."
But in the big picture, Solberg's wins may have come too late in the season. A mid-season slump, which saw the Norwegian fail to score any points in Argentina, Finland or Germany, left him 32 points adrift of Loeb in the championship fight before the current win streak.
"Just after the first stage, I said to myself that it will be difficult to beat Petter Solberg here," Loeb related after the event. "I went faster in some places but he always kept his lead. When Marcus Gronholm had some problems, I thought it wasn't stupid to go for the second place. And that's what we've done, just before two events which should be favourable to us."
And Loeb doesn't really need any favors. His lead in the championship can be attributed to amazing consistency and his Citroen's stellar reliability record: Loeb has finished in the top four on every rally this year, bar Rally Argentina, where a rock knocked off a wheel, finishing his rally.
And consistency was his weapon once again in Sardinia. Few top times, but Loeb kept the Xsara steadily in second place, thus scoring eight points and taking him ever closer to his first world title.
Gronholm matched and bettered Loeb's pace for the remainder of the rally, but had to settle for seventh place. Not a DNF this time, but only two points to his credit.
Still, Gronholm found cause for optimism after the end of the rally. "It took me a little while to find my rhythm, but eventually I was able to discover a good feeling with the car. I think we have proved once more that the 307 WRC has the pace to win on gravel, and now I am looking forward to proving its pace on asphalt on the next two rallies."
Carlos Sainz, Loeb's veteran teammate, took third; 3:20 off Solberg's pace, and scored six championship points to move past Markko Martin in the standings. Martin's quest for third was stopped with just three stages and 40 kilometers remaining, when the engine in his Ford Focus failed.
"This event was very difficult for the engineers and technicians as we were driving on a new terrain," Sainz explained. "We had quickly to find the most appropriate settings. It was also very tricky for the drivers due to the very narrow stages and the rocks interspersing on the sides."
The only other works driver to finish was Ford's Francois Duval, nearly eleven minute off the pace, and behind local driver Andrea Navarra in a privately-entered Subaru Impreza.
Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera and Subaru's Mikko Hirvonen experienced gearbox failures, both the Skodas failed as well, Armin Schwartz experiencing a front suspension failure and Toni Gardemeister crashing on the first leg.