WRC

Loeb sets new win record at Acropolis Rally

Loeb sets new win record at Acropolis Rally

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.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
At first glance, one might think that Loeb coasted through the final four stages -- he took only one stage win, compared to Saturday's complete sweep -- but he set a top-three time on every stage, and was still clearly the fastest driver overall for the day.

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.

Carlos Sainz and Marc Marti.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
"Five wins in a row? It hasn't really sunk in yet," Loeb stated. "This rally has been extremely positive in view of both title chases. We know we're not invincible and this winning run will come to an end one day but, if we want to extend it, we cannot afford to relax and next week we will be back out testing."

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.

Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
"It has been a fantastic weekend," the Spanish veteran exclaimed. "I am proud to have succeeded in meeting the objective (team principal) Guy Frequelin set for me, and proud to have scored valuable points in both events. The team is back on top of the championship and I hope it will stay there."

"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."

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
Indeed, Gardemeister set the fastest time on SS16, the second-best on SS17 and then two fifth-fastest times in the final two stages.

"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.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
"The roads were very rough and extremely dusty," the Finn summed things up. "It's been a disappointing rally as we were leading for most of the first day and we would have had a chance to challenge for the win. Looking on the positive side, the performance of the car is better and this is what we have to concentrate on for the future."

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."

Markko Martin and Michael Park.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
Overperforming the expectations, though, was Mikko Hirvonen, driving an M-Sport-entered customer Ford Focus. The young Finn, who had a Subaru works drive last year, showed his aggressive side at Acropolis, giving no quarter to the challenging Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi Lancer), and taking fifth place at the finish.

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."

Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports.
"We've fought all weekend and sixth didn't come easily," Rovanpera explained his side. "It was really good to be in a battle, and to finish sixth and get points in a rough rally like Greece is good news. We had no dramas and although the conditions were maybe a little easier than previous years, it was still a normal Acropolis.

"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.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team , M-Sport