Sebastien Loeb came into the final day of Acropolis Rally with a dominant lead of 1:24.6 over Toni Gardemeister, and he didn't let up on the third leg, either, taking the win with a final margin of 1:36.2 to take a record fifth consecutive World...
Sebastien Loeb came into the final day of Acropolis Rally with a dominant lead of 1:24.6 over Toni Gardemeister, and he didn't let up on the third leg, either, taking the win with a final margin of 1:36.2 to take a record fifth consecutive World Rally Championship victory.
And yet that's the kind of performance that the French ace is capable of doing even without pushing the limits -- his own or his Citroen Xsara's.
"I lifted over the rocky ruts of 'Dikastro' and, over the last two stages, which were very badly cut up in places, I really took it easy," the defending champion explained. "I wasn't even flat out along some straights over the pebbles towards the end of 'Perivoli'!"
On those last two stages he still set the second- and third-fastest times, behind stage winner Mikko Hirvonen and (on the final SS19) Marcus Gronholm.
Loeb's championship lead is now up to 23 points over Petter Solberg, who was left pointless with a ninth-place finish at Acropolis after his Subaru Impreza suffered a driveshaft failure on Friday.
More importantly for Citroen, the French manufacturer finally claimed the manufacturers' championship lead from sister company and archrival Peugeot, with the 16 points scored by Loeb and teammate Carlos Sainz, who finished the event in third.
Sainz, who was brought back from retirement for the Rally of Turkey and now Acropolis, to help Citroen gain the edge in the championship after young Belgian Francois Duval had managed to score only eight manufacturers' points for the team in the first six events of the year.
"As for me, I have finished my career in world class rallying on the podium of the event that gave me my first WRC win," the two-time WRC champion continued. "What more could a sportsman ask for?"
Sandwiched between the two Citroen drivers was Toni Gardemeister, taking his Ford Focus to a career-best second-place finish. 1:36 behind Loeb, yes, but still almost 35 seconds in front of Sainz -- Gardmeister stretched out the gap by over 25 seconds on the final four stages, as Sainz drove conservatively to ensure the manufacturer points for Citroen. In the event, this was undoubtedly a commendable performance for the Ford pilot.
"It was definitely maximum attack early this morning," a satisfied Gardemeister summed things up after the rally. "I had an excellent tyre choice and the car was perfect. I tried to drive in the clean line on the road and eased off a little when I saw Carlos' split times were slower than mine. But it's harder to drive slower because I lose my rhythm when I drop my speed."
"We had no big problems and the whole weekend has gone well," he summed up the Acropolis weekend. "We've pushed hard from the very first kilometre. It's hard to fight against someone as experienced as Carlos but we did it!"
Admittedly Gardemeister and Sainz were able to take advantage of a few snapped driveshafts: first Solberg's Subaru on Friday, and then Marcus Gronholm's Peugeot 307 suffered the same fate on SS13 on Saturday, costing him two minutes and dropping him from second to fourth, more than a minute behind Sainz.
"There was nothing we could do today," Gronholm admitted. "The only thing that could happen is that we made a mistake and went off. So I thought it was best just to bring the car home and make sure of the points."
While Gronholm made up some 25 seconds on Sainz -- he just pipped Gardemeister on the final day's aggregate times -- there really wasn't a realistic chance to challenge for a podium.
Unfortunately for Peugeot, Gronholm's teammate, Markko Martin, struggled with the 307 throughout the rally, and was not able to set competitive stage times. With an eighth-place finish, he brought home a few manufacturers' points, but not enough to keep Citroen from taking over the championship lead.
"This has been a strange rally for us," Martin reflected at the finish. "We had no real problems but we struggled a bit to find the proper feeling in the car. We have been able to continue our record of finishing every rally so far this year, and with more time I hope to find a better feeling in the car."
The gap between the two was some 27 seconds at the start of the final leg, but with Rovanpera charging and Hirvonen driving cautiously, the Mitsubishi was suddenly only two seconds adrift at the day's halfway point. But Hirvonen pulled out all the stops on the final two stages, taking stage wins on each one, and stretching the gap to over 31 seconds at the finish.
"It was really slippery in the first stage and so dusty that in places I couldn't see where I was going," Hirvonen recounted. "I expected Harri to be faster than me on the opening stage because he has driven it before and I haven't. I admit I was a bit worried going into the final two stages. It has finally gone as it should. We had a few problems but we overcame them and this is a fantastic result."
"Gigi" Galli took seventh in the other Mitsubishi, ahead of Martin and Solberg.
The WRC tour now takes a three-week breather before trading in the rocks and pebbles of Acropolis for the watersplashes of Rally Argentine, starting on 15 July.