Sebastien Loeb may not be able to clinch his second consecutive title on Sunday but the Citroen driver set the fastest time in all but one World Rally Championship special stage today in the Welsh countryside as he aims for his first-ever Rally of...
Sebastien Loeb may not be able to clinch his second consecutive title on Sunday but the Citroen driver set the fastest time in all but one World Rally Championship special stage today in the Welsh countryside as he aims for his first-ever Rally of Great Britain win.
The Frenchman will leave this weekend's round 12 with four events remaining on the 2005 calendar, and knowing that the 2005 title is nearly in his grasp. Going into tomorrow's final leg, Loeb has eight out of 11 wins thus far this season.
Can anyone stop the defending champion? The outlook does not look good for early points leader Petter Solberg or two-time WRC title holder Marcus Gronholm. Both slipped further away from taking this weekend's win; however, the final day can still change the face of the Wales GB rally.
Subaru's Solberg began the day nearly ten seconds adrift of the leader, who had been hit with a ten-second penalty on Friday. As hard as he pushed, the Norwegian dropped time and the 2003 champion is now close to 45 seconds out of being in a position to score the win.
It was a good day for Gronholm and Peugeot as the Finn set four second-fastest stage times. A good recovery from Friday's brake failure which put him down the leaderboard.
It wasn't enough to catch Solberg, who started the day more than a minute ahead of Gronholm -- let alone Loeb -- but it moved him into a probable podium finish, as he holds third overall at the end of the second day.
"Today has been good, but it has not quite been the same as fighting for a victory," Gronholm admitted, grimly. "It's a pity, as we undoubtedly had a car that was good enough to win here. This morning's stages were quite difficult, so I was not taking any risks. I knew that if I kept going at the same pace I could pass Harri Rovanpera, but I think it will be a different story to catch Sebastien Loeb and Petter Solberg. Still, there are four long stages to go tomorrow so anything can happen."
Still, after the drama of the brake failure yesterday, the team was very pleased to move up in the standings, even though 1:29.8 out of finishing on the top step.
For the two young drivers on the Citroen and Subaru teams, the day was good for one and a disappointment for the other.
Francois Duval sits fourth, nearly two minutes adrift of his Citroen teammate Loeb but in good position to challenge Gronholm on Sunday as he fends off Harri Rovanpera who is only 0.7 seconds out of fourth. The Mitsubishi driver does have a 30.5-second edge over Peugeot's Markko Martin.
Unfortunately Atkinson, the rising Aussie pilot, slid around a right hand bend on SS7 and down a steep slope. The Subaru appeared to have light damage but Chris Atkinson and co-driver Glenn Macneall were unable to get the Impreza back on track as the car was nearly ten feet below the actual route.
"I was on a slow, tightening corner when the front wheel just caught the apex and spun the car around," Atkinson explained the incident. "We dropped off the road a fair way into some bushes and there was no way for us to get back on the stage.
"It's a shame because before the incident the car and the tyres had felt excellent. We were running at a pace that wasn't far off the guys with much more experience, and when you're pushing harder then sometimes mistakes happen."
Mitsubishi also faced disappointment when Rovanpera experienced gearbox problems on SS12 after a brilliant run on yesterday and in the first 11 stages today. Going into SS12, Rovanpera had held a 6.7-second lead over Gronholm and 30 seconds over Duval, but the Finn lost over 30 seconds on the stage, dropping him by two places.
It was worse yet at Ford: Toni Gardemeister's Focus WRC was disqualified before the first stage of the day for failing to meet minimum weight. The Finn's car was found to weigh 1226 kg in repeated weighings, four kilos below the minimum wage limit, and thus ineligible for competition.
"The team made a miscalculation and we accept the decision of the stewards," said team principal Malcom Wilson, confirming that Ford would not appeal the decision. "It was a genuine error on our behalf and the stewards understood that there was no deliberate attempt to gain an advantage."
A unique happening took place on the final special stage: the competitors entered the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff with a roof overhead. The place was packed with spectators and a figure eight concrete track was where the drivers would compete on the twisty track.
The fans were thrilled when local hero, Mark Higgins, set the fastest time, the Brit hurtling his privateer Ford Focus to the front of the pack, and knocking Loeb from taking a clean sweep of Saturday's special stages.