Sebastien Loeb took no risks, and brought his Citroen Xsara WRC home, crossing the Rally Argentina finish line first to take his record sixth consecutive World Rally Championship victory, and extending his points lead to 27. "Of all my victories...
Sebastien Loeb took no risks, and brought his Citroen Xsara WRC home, crossing the Rally Argentina finish line first to take his record sixth consecutive World Rally Championship victory, and extending his points lead to 27.
"Of all my victories this year, this was probably the toughest," Loeb reflected at the finish. "I went off the road many times, and on the second leg, Marcus (Gronholm) was very strong on the faster stages, and pushed me hard."
Indeed, the 26.1-second final gap to the second-placed Gronholm was Loeb's smallest margin of victory this year -- typically the Frenchman has beaten his closest competitors by 50-60 seconds at the finish, and sometimes much more.
The established pattern this year has been for Loeb to build a modest lead on the first day, even while slowed down by having to "sweep" open the stages, and then run away and hide on the second and third legs. So it was an encouraging sign to Gronholm and the Peugeot Sport team that for the first time this year, the Finnish veteran was able to outpace Loeb over the second and third legs.
"This has been a good rally for us and second place is always satisfactory," Gronholm said. "But I think that I should have been closer to Loeb! The car was very good over the fast and wide stages, but not so good over the slow and bumpy sections, where we still have a lot of work to do. I think we did the best job that we could under the circumstances."
Gronholm improved his championship standing with his third second place of the year, moving to third place, behind Subaru's Petter Solberg, but the gap to Loeb is now bigger yet, at full 30 points. Worse for Peugeot, Citroen pulled ahead by another point in the manufacturers' championship.
Solberg is still second in the championship, but a lackluster Saturday saw him drop 30 seconds to Loeb and even more to the charging Gronholm, and his two stage wins today (for a more than respectable total of five over the event) were not enough to make up for yesterday's losses.
It was the battle for fourth that impressed on the final leg, as Toni Gardemeister drove the wheels off his Ford Focus WRC to stay ahead of Mitsubishi's Harri Rovanpera. The two young Finns were the fastest drivers on the final day as they battled for fourth, with Rovanpera 10 seconds faster than either Loeb or Gronholm on the final five stages.
Unfortunately for the Mitsubishi pilot, he needed another five seconds; with Gardemeister 11 seconds ahead to start the final leg, and also driving all out, Rovanpera was not destined to catch him. The gap was down to 5.6 seconds at the finish, but still in Gardemeister's favor.
It was a very difficult rally," Gardemeister summed up the event. "The roads this morning were icy but I had no choice but to drive flat out to try to keep Harri behind me. The road surface changed from dry to wet to icy and it's hard to drive in constantly changing conditions. I set fastest time in the longest stage but we had a few lucky escapes in there."
"The weekend has been good, although I would have liked to be on the podium," continued Gardemeister, who came in second at Monaco and third in Sweden -- and has been in the points in every other rally as well. "But fourth is a good, solid result and that's my ninth consecutive points finish with the Focus RS this season."
"Yesterday afternoon everything came together very well, and the good feeling returned and today has obviously been good too, fighting with Toni all the way to the finish," Rovanpera recalled. "I think we probably lost the fight in the second stage, where there was ice and mud, and we had very little grip. If the conditions had been drier throughout, it could have been a different story."
Behind the two youngsters, Markko Martin brought the second Peugeot home in a solid if unspectacular sixth place, the Estonian still not feeling comfortable in the 307 WRC at the season's halfway point: he finished the event over four minutes behind his teammate, and lost some 40 seconds on the final leg still.
"We still struggled to find confidence over the whole three days of this rally, and eventually decided that it was better to not take any risks and try for a solid points finish, rather than pushing too hard and going off," Martin admitted. "I did learn a lot about the set-up in slippery conditions."
with Francois Duval taking seventh in Citroen Sport's second car, Citroen was able to notch up another point against the sister marque and archrival Peugeot. But Duval's performance certainly was not up to the mark set by the temporarily unretired Carlos Sainz in the Greek and Turkish events.
Five and a half minutes to one's teammate -- and race winner -- is a substantial gap, and team principal Guy Frequelin has certainly shown a great deal of patience with Duval. If Peugeot's Martin finds the speed he has shown in prior seasons, though, Frequelin my be forced to make a move in order to protect Citroen's led in the manufacturers' championship.
Manfred Stohl, on the other hand, was only five seconds behind Duval, and in the final points-paying position, with his privately-entered Xsara WRC. What might Stohl be able to do with a works-supported car?