Loeb back on form at Rallye Deutschland

If the answer is "a tarmac rally," the question must be "where are Sebastien Loeb, Citroen and Michelin sure to dominate?" And the first leg of Rallye Deutschland bore this out, as the defending WRC champion won every stage but one. After going...

If the answer is "a tarmac rally," the question must be "where are Sebastien Loeb, Citroen and Michelin sure to dominate?" And the first leg of Rallye Deutschland bore this out, as the defending WRC champion won every stage but one.

After going winless on the gravel roads of Finland, Loeb was at home again on the German hard surfaces, taking wins in five of the first day's six stages, only giving up SS3 to teammate Francois Duval by a three-second margin, and finishing the day 11.7 seconds behind the young Belgian.

It has practically been a perfect day," Loeb exclaimed. "It's been a good fight and there are two Citroens in front. I am not surprised by the times of Francois. He was my biggest challenger here last year and, if he hadn't had a clutch problem on SS4, it would have been an even closer run thing between the two of us."

For Duval, it has been a renaissance. The young Belgian sat out Rally of Turkey and Acropolis Rally, and then struggled to hold off privateer Henning Solberg to score a single point with an eighth place in Rally Finland. But on the tough tarmac of Rallye Deutschland, Duval has clearly found his groove.

"I'm very happy," he summed up. "It's been a good day, although the clutch tended to engage a little sharply and I stalled at the start of SS4, then again in a hairpin on the same stage."

"Seb and I were in front here last year, and we are again this time round," the Citroen pilot continued. "But it's not by any means over. Tomorrow's stages over the military ranges are very different. To ward off a possible come-back by our rivals, we will need to continue at the same pace."

And the best of the rest? Marcus Gronholm once again, his Peugeot 307 WRC some 1:11 behind Loeb's Citroen Xsara. Gronholm is nearly 1:14 ahead of the next man, longtime rival Petter Solberg, but being over a minute off the pace after the first day is certainly not encouraging.

"This position is quite OK," Gronholm summed up. "I'll be satisfied with the weekend if I can hang on to third place."

But the championship? Gronholm is in second place, but his 55 points are still 28 fewer than the 83 that Loeb has collected. And with this pace on tarmac rallies, Gronholm's chances of making up the deficit are not much more than zero.

"OK, something can always happen," the two-time WRC champion mused. "For example, a car can break. But realistic chances of catching up (to Loeb) really are gone already."

And Loeb didn't exactly sound worried at the end of the leg: "I'm pleasantly surprised by the gap we have pulled out, even over Marcus who is always quick here. I want to thank our technical team and our partner Michelin. We will simply adapt the set-up for tomorrow's stages which are run over a different sort of terrain."

Solberg holds down fourth place in his Subaru Impreza, having taken over the position from Markko Martin when the Estonian lost a tire on SS3. With the big gap to Gronholm, his challenge for the remaining two days will be hanging onto fourth and the five championship points that go with it.

And the threat to Solberg? Ford's youth program, Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta are 5.9 and 12.1 seconds behind the Norwegian veteran, respectively, with Gardemeister having taken nearly ten seconds off Solberg on the final three stages of the day, after having done an unplanned vineyard tour to start the day off.

I was about 20 km into the first stage when I slid into a vineyard at a left bend just over a crest," the Finn explained. "I went a long way off and all I could see were grapes smashing into the windscreen. When I stopped I had to put the wipers on to clear the mess. I couldn't see where the road was for all the tall vines but somehow I found it and got back on. I know the grapes were white because there were plenty in the car!"

The choice of a harder tire compound on the afternoon stages worked much better, and Gardemeister recovered to pass his teammate and to threaten Solberg. "I couldn't drive any faster even though I wanted to. Maybe I lack experience with the car on dry asphalt. Tomorrow is a long, hard day and I hope I can find some more speed to move up the order."

Behind Solberg, Gardemeister and and Kresta, Markko Martin is just 7.3 seconds further behind in the second Peugeot, and "Gigi" Galli lies eighth, seven seconds behind Martin, in his Mitsubishi Lancer WRC.

So while the Citroens may have the race locked up, and Gronholm is in clear air in third, a battle royal is brewing for the rest of the point paying positions. Youth and experience, Subaru, Ford, Peugeot and Mitsubishi: this will be a rallying battle at its best.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team