Sebastien Loeb took control of Rally Argentina from the outset, taking advantage of the rainy weather that controlled the dust, effectively eliminating the disadvantage of running as the first car on the stages -- an assignment automatically due...
Sebastien Loeb took control of Rally Argentina from the outset, taking advantage of the rainy weather that controlled the dust, effectively eliminating the disadvantage of running as the first car on the stages -- an assignment automatically due to Loeb and his Citroen Xsara WRC.
Loeb took wins in six of the first leg's ten stages, en route to a 31-second overnight lead in the ninth event on this year's World Rally Championship -- a grueling marathon in the hills of Argentina, where the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio first gained fame, before the advent of Formula One.
"Being first on the road wasn't a problem. I think the conditions were pretty much the same for the first three or four cars," the championship leader summed things up. "The 8-compound Michelin BTO tyre we are using here for the first time was perfect."
Petter Solberg threatened early on in the day, with wins on SS2 and SS3, and held the lead until the midway point of the day. But Loeb ran away from the Norwegian ace in the second half, adding 30 seconds to his lead in the five final stages as the pace Solberg's Subaru dropped off significantly.
"In the afternoon, when the stages were rougher, we tried a slightly different set-up, which didn't turn out as good as that in the morning," Solberg explained. "This afternoon we also maybe lost some time with a harder tyre than the morning, but we know where to go, and what to do for tomorrow. We have not been taking any chances and we are not giving up on getting back on top again. "
Solberg will indeed need the speed tomorrow, as Marcus Gronholm's Peugeot 307 WRC is hot on his heels. The Finn was 22 seconds behind aft SS6, but took a win, two seconds and a third on the final four stages to whittle the gap to the second-place Subaru down to just over 13 seconds.
Still, that fight is not enough for the two-time world champion, who wants to be challenging Loeb for the lead rather than challenging for the right to be second-best.
"I cannot really be happy with today," he explained. "I hoped to fight for the lead here and although we set some quick times that has not really happened. I can definitely think of some things we can do to improve the car, and there is still a long way to go. I like so let's see what is possible. I've certainly been pushing hard today and I don't intend to give up easily."
Behind Gronholm, Toni Gardemeister is again showing the strength of his recent form, and is on target for a strong points finish -- but some two minutes' gap to Loeb and well more than a minute to Gronholm, clearly the top three of Loeb, Solberg and Gronholm are in a league of their own.
"I pushed hard but the times weren't as good as I hoped," the quiet Finn recounted. "I hit a stone on stage four and bent a steering arm but that wasn't a big problem. However, I was lucky on the next stage when I almost slid off the road on a fifth gear corner. I slid wide several times. It was quite muddy in places after last night's rain but the roads dried as the day went on."
"I've enjoyed the battle with Harri (Rovanpera) and Markko (Martin) and that will continue on the second leg, I think. Tomorrow morning's stages are all new for me so it won't be easy," he continued.
Behind Gardemeister, Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) and Martin (Peugeot) are indeed in hot pursuit, with Rovanpera just eight seconds off Gardemeister's pace in spite of a small scare in the morning.
"This morning's spin was maybe my first in about five years -- I couldn't believe it!" the Mitsubishi pilot explained. "This afternoon I've not been so happy with the damper settings, especially in the bumpy sections where we keep ending up off line. Otherwise, everything has been good and the tire choices were quite right for the conditions. It's good to be fighting and hopefully we can carry on like this tomorrow."
Francois Duval, returning after a two-race absence to make room for Carlos Sainz, is in seventh place in th esecond works Citroen. He is in the points, but only five seconds up on Manfred Stahl in a privateer Citroen -- not an auspicious return for the young Belgian.
"It wasn't easy," Duval summed up. "This event, on which it is so easy to make a mistake, is an important rally for my career. It isn't exactly a pressure-free outing, but we did well. We both know that it won't be any easier tomorrow, but our objective will be the same: to reach the finish!"
The second day, with seven stages over some 115 km, will show whether Solberg and Gronholm have the goods to challenge Loeb for the lead -- and whether Duval can stay out of trouble and in the points.