David Schilke, WRC Correspondent
Sébastien Loeb has moved into another record book with very prestigious company by becoming one of the few to have earned three wins at the car breaking Acropolis Rally of Greece. The hat trick didn't come easy for Loeb as the Citroen driver dealt with pressure from both Ford drivers for much of the FIA World Rally Championship event nicknamed as the "Rally of the Gods." Yet as the Frenchman stayed ahead both Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg couldn't keep the same pace without making mistakes. That left the door open for a smooth and consistent Mikko Hirvonen to give Citroen their second one-two finish for the season. Another great performance from the living Gods of rally.
I believe that everybody has done a great rally, Mikko, Petter and Jari-Matti.
“This rally was so long and difficult,” said Loeb to the WRC media. “We had some fortune in the morning, but in general we had to fight really hard. It was really good. I tried to always keep my rhythm and do what I felt. I tried to manage the car and the tires. I believe that everybody has done a great rally, Mikko, Petter and Jari-Matti.”
Loeb's final day become much easier when Solberg crashed out in the morning's first stage. "The plan was to push and try to take two or three seconds back on the first stage. I wanted to put pressure on Loeb, I had to try. After the opening 10km we were equal on time so I decided to push a bit harder. Until the accident my driving was perfect with no mistakes. It’s disappointing but I must look ahead to the next rally and stay positive,” added Solberg.
The Norwegian was within ten seconds to Loeb but the costly mistake saw him retire from the rally and give Loeb almost a two minute cushion to Hirvonen. That gap would be needed on stage 20 when the points leader had to pull over for a puncture, costing him 80 seconds of his commanding lead. Still, being over half a minute in front with just two more stages to go meant Loeb was now on a course for victory. Along the way he picked up the extra three points for winning the event's Power Stage, bringing his points haul to 119.
“I never lost my cool at any point," said Loeb, "even when we got a puncture, because I knew we would still have enough of a lead. It is worth highlighting that we were able to count upon the unwavering reliability of the DS3 WRC.”
Hirvonen was third in the Power Stage and slots second in the points, albeit 30 marks down from his teammate. Hirvonen was pleased with this week's result, “We had no mechanical problems on either car; that is a truly exceptional achievement on a rally like this one. As far as I’m concerned, I am still surprised to have finished second, but I had to be consistent and not make any mistakes. I am really looking forward to the next two rallies in New Zealand and Finland!”
Latvala took second on the final stage as the Finn begins to climb his way back up the championship standings since retiring from Mexico and then missing Argentina due to his testing injury. With only one win this season so far Latvala will be looking to step up his performance in Finland.
“I need to be satisfied in one sense because I said before the rally that I wanted to finish on the podium and I did that,” said Latvala. “Of course, at the same time I’m disappointed because I could have won. It’s good to be back on the podium after a long time away but I need to push for wins now. That’s the only thing I can do."
With Latvala and Solberg’s bad luck Mads Østberg has now become the leading Ford driver in the championship. The Norwegian is only nine points off Hirvonen after finishing fourth this weekend. With both Ford works drivers making multiple mistakes it's very possible Østberg might be moving up with the main team next year as he has finished in the top five for every event contended this year.
“It has been a tricky event and the off on Friday was not good," commented Østberg. "But apart from that I think we have done exactly what we planned to do. The result in the end is not so bad at all really so I am happy with that.”
Rounding out the top five this weekend was Martin Prokop in another privateer Fiesta while Citroen Junior driver Thierry Neuville finished sixth as the Belgian settles into a consistent top ten performance. Sebastien Ogier once again kept with the primer cars in a S2000 Skoda to finish seventh overall for the Volkswagen development team. Yazeed Al-Rajhi scored his first WRC point in eighth, followed by Ott Tänak who had a weekend he'd most likely want to forget. The final points position was snagged by the fastest MINI driver Abdulaziz Alkuwari, as the Prodrive main MINI team did not attend this weekend.
The team's will now take off close to a month in preparation for the long trip to New Zealand. In fact much of their gear is already loaded onto ocean containers heading to the second rally in the Southern Hemisphere this season. The venue is an epic event worthy of the beautiful landscape and is still site to one of the closest WRC finishes in history when Marcus Gronholm just edged Loeb out of victory by 0.3 seconds. Skipped in 2011 New Zealand will be a welcome return to this season by past winners Solberg, Latvala and Loeb. It will be here that Ford needs to turn their season around, or accept another runner-up season to the Citroen team.
View the 2012 Acropolis Rally of Greece results here.