Loeb inherits Rally Australia lead

Loeb inherits Rally Australia lead

The lead in the rally that no one seems to want to win was handed to Sebastien Loeb early this morning, as overnight leader Marcus Gronholm spun out of Rally Australia, the final round of the 2004 World Rally Championship. "What can I do?," Loeb...

The lead in the rally that no one seems to want to win was handed to Sebastien Loeb early this morning, as overnight leader Marcus Gronholm spun out of Rally Australia, the final round of the 2004 World Rally Championship.

"What can I do?," Loeb asked rhetorically. "I just have to stay on the road. Why try now when there are no cars to compete against? At one point [on SS11] I came off, had a spin and lost 10 seconds. I don't want to make any more mistakes. I'm disappointed that Gronholm retired this morning, it was a good challenge."

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
The Frenchman had his Citroen some 21 seconds adrift of Gronholm in the overnight standings, but today's first stage, the second pass through Beraking, proved fateful for Gronholm.

About three kilometers into the 23-km stage, with Gronholm's Peugeot 307 WRC riding low on a heavily rutted road, his sump guard caught ground, putting the car into a slide in a sharp left-hand turn. The Peugeot did a full 360-degree spin, and ended smashing both ends of the car into trees, ending the 2004 season for the double world champion.

"We came into the turn with normal speed, but the ruts were much deeper than they had been yesterday," Gronholm recounted the incident. "I tried to start the engine, but after the impact there was something rubbing against the alternator belt, so the engine would not restart. Finally we managed to get it going again, but it was too late."

"It was a real pity as the speed and the reliability of the car has been perfect," the Finn reflected on his lost chance for a second win of the year. "We just needed a bit more ride height to get through that corner."

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
For Loeb, the incident was just what he needed. With Gronholm, Petter Solberg, Markko Martin and Carlos Sainz now all out of the picture, he is now in a position to tie the record for most wins in a single season.

The current record, set by Didier Auriol in a Lancia Delta HF Integrale, has stood the test of time since 1992, when the Frenchman won an astound six out of ten events, yet finished third in the championship, behind Sainz and Juha Kankkunen.

Loeb, who already had the 2004 championship in his pocket, now holds a massive lead for the sixth win of 2004, with an edge of more than 1:20 over second-placed Harri Rovanpera, Gronholm's junior teammate at Peugeot.

"Everything is going very well so far. We had no problems at all apart from the off (on SS11) which maybe cost us about 10 seconds," Rovanpera reflected. "The car is feeling good and I am quite confident. We are second now and although the gap to the front is quite big there is still a long way to go and anything can happen."

Fran?ois Duval and St?phane Pr?vot.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
The number-two drivers at Ford and Subaru, respectively, Francois Duval and Mikko Hirvonen, hold down third and fourth places, but with their gaps to Loeb at 2:30 and 4:56, they are well out of the picture, and with little chance of even fighting for position amongst themselves -- unless Loeb or Rovanpera were to falter.

"I'm not driving anywhere near maximum pace because there is no point in pushing hard," Duval explained. "I could end up going off the road and I don't have any chance of catching the drivers in front. I'm happy with the position I've got."

The four are the only remaining works drivers -- although Solberg restarted leg 2 under the 2004 rules, scoring five stage wins on today's ten stages. Solberg, in fact, was clearly the fastest driver of the day: while he lost some 20 seconds on the first stage avoiding Gronholm's accident, he more than made up for it later, and on the remaining nine stages the Norwegian's times totaled 21.4 seconds faster than Loeb.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
"For sure, I'm not attacking the stages as I would if I was still fighting for the win," Solberg admitted. "But it's still good fun out there, I like these conditions a lot and by re-starting we can still put on a show for the spectators."

The rest of the points-paying positions are filled by privateers and Production Cup drivers.

Antony Warmbold, in a 2002-model Ford Focus WRC, is in fifth, some nine and a half minutes off the pace, but still 90 seconds ahead of local hero Dean Herridge in a Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Herridge's best WRC career finish to date has been a ninth place in this year's Rally New Zealand.

Alister McRae is in seventh, the top Production Cup driver, while eighth is Chris Atkinson, another local hope. McRae and Atkinson -- who finished third in this year's Asia-Pacific Rally Championship -- are 11:15 and 11:25 off the pace, respectively.

It looks like a Sunday drive home for Loeb right now, but, as Rovanpera pointed out, anything can happen in rallying.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team