Sebastien Loeb did not leave anything to chance, repeating his 2006 victory in Rally Mexico, in convincing fashion. The fourth round in the World Rally Championship ended up with the three-time defending champion cruising to the finish in his ...
Sebastien Loeb did not leave anything to chance, repeating his 2006 victory in Rally Mexico, in convincing fashion. The fourth round in the World Rally Championship ended up with the three-time defending champion cruising to the finish in his Citroen C4 WRC with a 55.8-second margin over Marcus Gronholm after a conservative drive in the third leg.
Loeb and Daniel Elena now have notched 30 WRC victories: "For Daniel and me, this is our 30th WRC win together. That's obviously nice but I'm especially pleased with our run here this weekend and what it promises for the upcoming rallies."
"The car was really good," added Loeb. "Since Monte Carlo we were waiting for this event as the first gravel rally of the season. We have to wait for this rally to see how it performed. The car was perfect. No problems and a good feeling.
The decisive factor in Loeb's victory was his performance on Friday's first leg, where he built a 26-second margin to Chris Atkinson, and, more importantly, a 43-second gap to Gronholm. Having started third on the road, with Gronholm opening the gravel stages, gave Loeb an advantage, and he was not one to turn it down. He nearly matched pace with Subaru's Petter Solberg, and then took over when the Norwegian's Impreza WRC2007 spilled its engine oil onto the Mexican roads.
The Frenchman ensured his victory by setting four fastest stage times on Saturday and holding his lead on Gronholm while other challengers faded away. With a 1:00.8 gap to start the final leg, he drove prudently to ensure the victory and the full 10 championship points.
"There is always some pressure," Loeb said. "When Petter retired it was only the start of the rally. I had a 27 second lead and there were two days to go. I had to concentrate. The car was perfect and it was okay."
Gronholm, had struggled on the first day with the combination of the dirty road, a faulty temperature sensor and poor settings on his Ford Focus RS WRC. Due to problems in the reconnaissance run, the team was forced to fall back to the setup from the snowy Rally Norway. As a result, by Sunday, he really had no opportunity to challenge for the lead on the final leg.
"There really was no reason to drive all out today," the Finnish veteran explained. "But we drove fast anyway. The slow Friday spoiled our rally, though."
Neither was he challenged, as the battle royal for third, with Atkinson, Mikko Hirvonen and Daniel Sordo was more than 30 seconds behind him. So the thing to do was to make sure that Loeb would gain only two points on him in the championship battle -- and, in the event, Gronholm now leads Loeb with 32 points to 28, with his Ford teammate Hirvonen at 26.
"I found a good feeling with the car yesterday morning and from then on everything was perfect," Gronholm remarked. "We're still leading both championships although Seb has closed on us a little here and I want to do better on the next round in Portugal."
Hirvonen, the junior driver in the Ford works stable, drove another strong rally, recovering from a difficult Friday and his mistake yesterday when he had run second on the road. Today, he made a strong impression on the stages. Nearly three seconds behind Sordo's Citroen C4 WRC to start the day, he set the fastest times on SS17 and SS19.
"I'm happy to take another six points after yesterday's spin," said Hirvonen. "I lost the fight for second yesterday when I made a mistake but that was my fault. My speed is getting closer to Seb and Marcus all the time so that's encouraging."
More importantly, he edged Sordo by 9.4, 4.1 and 5.2 seconds on the three remaining gravel stages -- and then by a tenth on the final spectator superespecial. The final gap was 16.0 seconds in favor of the Finn.
"I couldn't lift off, the gap to Sordo was not very big," a relieved Hirvonen recounted at the finish. "I expect that the rest of the season will be the same kind of tough battle."
The podium was important to the Ford team to keep Citroen's challenge at bay in the manufacturers' championship. With the 2-3 finish, the team took home 14 points to Citroen's 15, and maintains a solid 15-point lead over the French team.
For the Citroen works team, it was a welcome sight to see Sordo in the heat of battle for the podium positions, after two snowy rallies spent in the wilderness. The young Spaniard showed his mettle in the fight; it was not enough to match Hirvonen's pace on the final day, but at least he was able to hold off Atkinson.
"I still need to progress, but I feel I have improved on dirt. I am closer to the others and at times I was up there with the best of them," stated Sordo. "I feel more and more comfortable with the C4 and I also feel reassured about my ability."
The responsibility for scoring points for the Subaru works team had yet again been thrust in the hands of the young Australian, this time after the engine failure on team leader Solberg's car. With the new 2007-spec Impreza WRC under him, Atkinson did not betray that confidence, and mixed it up with Hirvonen and Sordo throughout the weekend, finishing fifth place in the new car's debut race.
"We came here looking for a top-five finish and although things could have been better, it's not a bad result to take away," commented the Aussie. "Overall I think we're all pleased with the way the new car has performed. On its first time out we've got a few stage wins, it's proved competitive on Superspecials, and works well on repeated stages too."
Manfred Stohl had impressed on Friday, with the advantage of a late road position, but once the start order was set to the usual inverted top-15 for Saturday and Sunday, his speed in the OMV Kronos-entered 2005-spec Citroen Xsara WRC simply wasn't enough. Still, it was sufficient to finish as the top privateer, and to take home another three points for himself and the Kronos team.
"It is very comforting to score points again," stated the Austrian. "The next four rallies until the summer break will be completed on gravel. That makes me very confident for the WRC ranking, as well."
Stobart M-Sport has been one of the bright lights of this early WRC season, and the team was looking forward to the first gravel rally of the year. However, the team's lead driver, Norwegian veteran Henning Solberg, rolled his Ford Focus on the first stage, losing more than three minutes before he was able to get upright and back under way. Worse, the crash caused a loss of hydraulic pressure, and by the end of SS3 he was back in 25th place, nearly eight minutes adrift.
Solberg recovered to finish ninth, out of the points, but the team's young lions, Jari-Matti Latvala and Matthew Wilson fortunately took care of business for the British privateer outfit. Latvala scored eight top-five stage times en route to a seventh-place finish, just 25 seconds behind Stohl, while Wilson took a more cautious approach to ensure a points finish.
Needless to say, Latvala was very pleased with his run in Mexico: "Seventh is a good position for me, we came here to finish the rally, score some points and get more experience on gravel; and this is exactly what happened. It took me a little while to adjust to driving on gravel on the first day but the feeling got better through Saturday and I was really impressed with my split times. I am also happy to have scored more points for both the drivers' and manufacturer championships and to complete all the stage miles here is also a bonus; it gives me a better feeling for the next rally in Portugal."
Rally Portugal will take place March 30 to April 1 and could lead to a further tightening of the standings. Will Subaru's Solberg finally be able to a win or will Loeb continue his charge to pass Gronholm for the points lead.
"The C4 WRC is quick and efficient and I feel very comfortable driving it. It is nicely balanced, with less oversteer and good potential whatever the profile of the stages. There is good reason to be optimistic for the future but, as we saw here, it won't be easy," admitted the reigning champion.