Loeb on track to conquer Tour de Corse

Loeb on track to conquer Tour de Corse

Sebastien Loeb continued his drive toward his first World Rally Championship victory in his home country, the Frenchman topped the charts for the second consecutive day at the Tour de Corse in his Citroen Xsara WRC. Sébastien Loeb and...

Sebastien Loeb continued his drive toward his first World Rally Championship victory in his home country, the Frenchman topped the charts for the second consecutive day at the Tour de Corse in his Citroen Xsara WRC.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
The newly-crowned champion swept all four special stages on Saturday -- and each one by a margin of more than 3.5 seconds -- repeating his feat from Friday. Loeb now holds a comfortable edge of 1:30.5 over Ford's Toni Gardemeister, with just the final four stages to go.

"Eight fastest times from eight: everything's fine!" a satisfied Loeb summed up the event so far. "Everybody is now asking whether I can make it a grand slam. That's not my objective, but if I can win more stages driving at this pace, which is sufficiently quick to ensure the Xsara is easy to drive and for me to remain fully concentrated, then that will be a bonus."

And the key objective for Loeb, as well as for his young teammate, Francois Duval? The manufacturers' championship, as Loeb confirmed: "My main aim is to win to try to score maximum points for Citroen."

Pending the completion of the Tour de Corse -- Citroen is leading main rival and PSA sister marque Peugeot by 150 points to 128 -- and now has the opportunity to clinch the manufacturers' title, as Peugeot's lead driver, Marcus Gronholm is out of the rally when his new double-clutch transmission failed at the end of the first leg.

Fran?ois Duval and Sven Smeets.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Duval's situation looked bad today as well, the Belgian lost nearly a minute and a half over the span of SS5 and SS6 with brake problems, before the team managed to overhaul the braking system during the mid-day service.

"(The brakes) began overheating, then I lost the front right brakes and, by the end of SS5, the pedal was hitting the floor," Duval explained. "The front left brakes obviously started to heat up too and I finished the stage with the little braking power I still had at the rear, plus the help of my handbrake. We had a couple of scares, but the main thing was that we succeeded in getting the car back to service."

The brake problems dropped Duval back to fifth place, behind Gardemeister and the Subarus of Petter Solberg and Stephane Sarrazin, after the first two special stages. However, Duval pushed hard again, while Sarrazin was struggling with understeer on his Impreza WRC, and by the end of the day the Citroen pilot had made up the eight-second gap and moved 18 seconds ahead, although he is still 25 seconds adrift of Solberg and 50 seconds behind Gardemeister.

Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
And Gardemeister is having the time of his life. He may be 90 seconds behind Loeb, but second place on a tarmac rally is nothing to scoff at -- like other Finnish drivers, he is far more experienced on gravel -- and he is on pace to match his career-best finish (second at Monte Carlo and Acropolis this year).

And while Loeb was in a class of his own, Gardemeister beat Solberg by some 15 seconds on the day, stretching his advantage to 24.6 seconds. Duval took 10 seconds off his gap to the Finn on the final two stages, though, so there will be no coasting to the finish.

"I chose slightly harder tyres this afternoon and that was the right selection, even though I don't have such a good feeling with them," the Finn recalled. "Petter will really want second place tomorrow and Francois Duval will be trying hard to make up time he lost today, so I have to concentrate on keeping them back."

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
Even though Solberg wasn't able to stay on the pace of Gardemeister and Duval, he was by no means depressed. "I must say, I'm happy with what we've done today," the 2003 champion mused. "It's been better than I expected, actually. I think the development work that we've done recently is a massive step forward. We haven't had any problems to report, apart from the near miss with a pig on the first stage, and I hope we can have another trouble free run tomorrow."

The rally concludes tomorrow with two runs through each of the Acqua Doria - Serra Di Ferro and Pont De Calzola - Agosta stages.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team