Loeb hangs on to Rally Argentina lead

Loeb hangs on to Rally Argentina lead

Marcus Gronholm said he wanted to fight for victory, and that's exactly what he did on the second leg of Rally Argentina, although it looks like his efforts may be too little, too late to catch Sebastien Loeb. Sébastien Loeb and Daniel...

Marcus Gronholm said he wanted to fight for victory, and that's exactly what he did on the second leg of Rally Argentina, although it looks like his efforts may be too little, too late to catch Sebastien Loeb.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Loeb, who built up a convincing 31-second lead over second-placed Petter Solberg on Friday, could afford to take things easier on the second day of this World Rally championship event, but Gronholm drove like a man possessed, intent on making up ground on the Frenchman.

"These stages are Marcus' garden, and last year he was already really fast down there," Loeb reflected at the halfway point. "I think I drove a bit too defensively on stage 11. On SS13, around five kilometres into the stage, I entered a bit too fast in a left corner with big sandy ruts. I thought this could wedge the rear of the car but it actually happened on the front and I spun."

Gronholm's Peugeot was working well, and the Finn drove in a style worthy of his two world championship titles, setting top times on four of the day's seven stages, against two for Loeb; the stage wins had been 6-2 in Loeb's favor on Friday, but the tables were turned today.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
"Today was much better than yesterday," the Peugeot pilot confirmed. "The roads were much better suited to me and the 307 WRC. The stages in the morning were wider, faster, and less bumpy, and these are the conditions in which our car works best. I enjoyed this leg and we didn't have a single problem.

"I think it will be impossible for us to win the rally just by normal driving," he admitted. "We have to stay as close as possible and keep the pressure on. Tomorrow's stages are sure to be very tricky for everybody."

Gronholm's charge got the gap down to 25 seconds by the end of SS14, from 45 seconds overnight, but Loeb responded on SS15 and SS16 to take back some of the time. With Gronholm throwing his Peugeot 307 WRC around Valle Hermoso 2, the day's final stage, the day finished with a 26.6-second difference between the two.

"Half a minute gap is really a difficult margin to keep as you always wonder if it will be sufficient," Loeb mused. "I believe I will drive as if I hadn't a real advance and will push in the coming stages. "

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
And today was definitely a two-horse race, with Loeb and Gronholm practically untouchable. Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza WRC), who had been second overnight, 31 seconds adrift of Loeb and 13 seconds ahead of Gronholm, had one good stage on Santa Rosa de Calamu -- SS11, the day's first stage -- but then fell back rapidly, finishing the second leg in third place, 35 seconds off Gronholm's total time.

"This just wasn't my afternoon," the Norwegian veteran rued. "On the first stage a rear caliper started to leak the brake fluid, probably when a big rock punctured it, and I had absolutely zero brakes for six kilometres. I managed to make some fixes after the stage, but I only had two or three brakes for the next stages. It was a big bit of bad luck. The stage conditions were very tricky, being so muddy, and I was off the road a couple of times."

The difference becomes clear in looking at today's times. In an hour and 10 minutes of special stages, Gronholm was about 18 seconds faster than Loeb -- and 50 seconds faster than Solberg, Toni Gardemeister and Harri Rovanpera, in third through fifth positions, respectively.

"The morning stages were so sandy it was like driving on the beach," Gardemeister recalled. "It was quite muddy all day but the final stage was incredible: I slid off the road three times at hairpin bends. I tried to control the car with the handbrake but it was just so slippery that the car slid off."

"I've done too much sliding this afternoon and lost too much time," he continued. "The sun has come out this evening and I hope it stays that way tomorrow. I've enjoyed the fight with Harri and tomorrow I must maintain the same kind of pace to keep ahead of him."

In the manufacturers' points fight, it's Peugeot's #2 driver Markko Martin in sixth place and two points (for a total of ten for the team, assuming current standings hold) and Citroen's Francois Duval in seventh, giving Citroen eleven points at the current positions.

Both Martin and Duval are again well off the pace of their teammates; the duo lost more than a minute again on today's second leg, and the two are now 3:48 and 4:38 behind Loeb, respectively. Maybe even more significantly, neither driver was able to match the pace of Gardemeister and Rovanpera, either, and the two young Finns pulled another half a minute ahead of Martin and Duval.

"We've made a good tyre choice throughout the day although we slid off a couple of times this morning, which cost us a bit of time," Martin explained. "I'm still not totally confident when driving the car on the limit, but we've managed to find a pace that means we can get to the end without taking risks.

The final day has only 60 km of special stages remaining, making it an exceedingly difficult task for Gronholm. If he can duplicate the his best times on each of the final three long stages, he may be in with a chance. But it's definitely an outside chance ...

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team