Nancy and David Schilke, WRC Correspondents
Loeb leads Latvala after the first nine stages in Greece
Sebastien Loeb only took one stage win today -- Drossohori (SS6) – but he holds the lead after a very demanding day of competition for the FIA World Rally Championship’s sixth round of the season. Returning to his first event after being sidelined, Jari-Matti Latvala sits 6.5 seconds behind the Citroen ace, after having won five stages on leg one.
It’s been a while since we’ve raced like that!
"I really enjoyed scrapping for tenths of a second with Mikko, Jari-Matti and Petter throughout the day; it’s been a while since we’ve raced like that!" smiled Loeb.
Latvala and Miikka Anttila held the lead after SS1 Thursday and opened the second day with the fastest time. The Ford WRT duo continued to control the overall standings until the completion of the fourth stage when Latvala overshot a corner and lost time. The Finn also felt carrying two spare tires on the afternoon loop didn't help his pace either.
“When I missed the junction, I wasn’t prepared for it to be so slippery," explained Latvala. "When I braked the engine stalled and the car overshot the corner, but fortunately there was nothing to hit. It was surprisingly damp in places and I didn’t have enough traction. The tyres didn’t warm up quickly enough at the start of the stage but once they had heated up, I was able to pull time back."
That handed Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena the overall lead. At the end of the eight special stages today, Loeb is in command. “We are leading so that’s the most important thing. The feeling was okay, I’ve done no mistake until the last one where there was a lot of dust and I did a few mistakes at the end. Apart from the last one we had a good day.”
The final stage nine was a challenge due to the dust clouds from Mads Ostberg and Thierry Neuville, who both had problems on the stage. The reason that the top WRC drivers are not the first ones on the road and ahead of the dust was due to the special qualifying stage where the fastest driver – in this case Ford’s Petter Solberg – elects his starting position with the rest of the cream of the crop following suit. Knowing that the gravel roads would be messy, the Norwegian took a started the event further down the order.
Other stage winners today included Solberg and navigator Chris Patterson with two fastest times, while Citroen’s Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen earned one stage win. Both are still in the hunt as there are still two days to conquer. Sitting third, Solberg came close to being forced out of the action when he had a heavy impact on SS6 and sustained bent rear suspension.
“It was the biggest moment of my career in terms of shock,” admitted Solberg. “I didn’t have the rock marked in my pace notes and I can’t say what happened because I don’t know. There was a massive impact, the car flew into the air and I thought my rally was finished. The boys did a fantastic job to repair it in such a short time and I’m sure they can complete the job tonight. It proves how strong the car is that it can survive an impact like that, and it’s encouraging with tomorrow’s rough stages ahead."
Hirvonen rounds out the top four that are in podium contention, beyond the Citroen driver is over a three minute gap to fifth placed Evgeny Noviko. Martin Prokop ended the day sixth, with Nasser Al-Attiyah just ten seconds away in seventh. Ostberg sits eighth after his woes on stage nine, but it could be worse as Neuville dropped back to eleventh. Volkswagen World Rallt Team drivers Sebastien Ogier and Andreas Mikkelsen sit between these two unlucky stage nine runners while Armindo Araujo is the highest placed MINI in twelfth.
Eight more stages await the crews tomorrow centered around the Peloponnese peninsula with service in Loutraki. The weather promises to be a bit warmer but still very cool for Greece so the Pirelli tires should hold up all day long. That means the battle over tenths amongst the top four will continue on tomorrow.