Sebastien Loeb made it look easy, and there was no doubt about who is the king of Tour de Corse. The defending Worl Rally Champion started the final day of the rally with a 40-second lead over his archrival Marcus Gronholm, and there was little ...
Sebastien Loeb made it look easy, and there was no doubt about who is the king of Tour de Corse. The defending Worl Rally Champion started the final day of the rally with a 40-second lead over his archrival Marcus Gronholm, and there was little doubt about the end result.
Loeb did slow down and drive conservatively to secure the victory for the Kronos Racing Citroen team -- shades of the 2004 event that saw Loeb drive cautiously throughout the rally and finish second -- but, more importantly, clinch his first WRC title.
"This year's Tour de Corse wasn't easy," Loeb recounted. "First of all, I had to push very hard to keep Marcus Gronholm at bay. Secondly, I had to make sure I made the most of the tyre package I selected for this weekend's event. I chose it with the thought that the weather could have been a little poorer, but in the end it proved hot and sunny throughout."
Still, Loeb, the Xsara WRC and the Kronos team were clearly in their element: a comfortable victory, never threatened after the first few stages, and six stage wins out of 12 for Loeb, plus another pair for Daniel Sordo, Loeb's junior teammate.
Gronholm did score stage wins in the final two specials, to add to the single he scored on the first day, but it was a case of too little, too late as there was no way to make up 40 seconds in just 55 km. And Gronholm had recognized this as well on Saturday already.
"Tomorrow I won't try to attack," he said at the finish of the second leg. "Second is a good position and there is no point in me risking that in trying to achieve the impossible."
In the event, the veteran Finn didn't sit back, but continued at his pace, picking up 10 seconds on Loeb on the final two stages, once the Citroen pilot was content to secure the victory.
"I didn't have the chance to win here against Loeb," Gronholm summed things up. "I think I can beat him on asphalt but I just don't know where or when. I didn't have enough experience of the new Focus in competition on asphalt to match him. It's the first time in Corsica with the car and we haven't tested on roads like this so we're still learning."
Sordo took third for Kronos in the team's second Xsara WRC, 1:48 behind Gronholm's Ford Focus RS WRC, while Gronholm's teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, followed in fourth place. Sordo took the last podium spot from Hirvonen in a hard-fought battle on yesterday's second stage, but the Ford driver wasn't giving in quite yet.
"Losing some time at the start of the rally [due to an electrical problem] gave us a certain advantage, as it meant that we needed to push hard from the beginning," Sordo reflected on the rally. "We enjoyed ourselves from start to finish, in a fantastic fight with Alex Bengue and then Mikko Hirvonen."
As to that fight, with a five-second gap to Sordo at the beginning of the final stage, the Hirvonen decided to attack one final time. He might have yet caught up with Sordo -- Gronholm was 10.4 seconds faster than Sordo on that stage -- but it could have turned out far, far worse as well.
"I enjoyed the fight with Dani," Hirvonen explained at the finish. "Third would have been great but I'm lucky not to be halfway down a mountain! About 8.5km after the start of the last stage I slide wide in a corner onto some gravel. The car was totally off the road and I thought we would tumble over the edge. Thankfully we didn't and I eased off after that."
Bengue, driving a privately-entered Peugeot 307 WRC, took fifth place in his home event. He ran strongly in early going in the rally, but could not hold off the charging Sordo and Hirvonen, and trailed the latter by 48 seconds at the finish.
He did, however, outdrive Xavier Pons, the third Kronos entry, who finished another 22 seconds back, and a total of some three minutes behind Loeb in a conservative drive. Pons, rather than Sordo, had been nominated by the team to be eligible to score points in the manufacturers' championship.
"After two retirements, it was vital for me to finish the rally," Pons explained. "Notwithstanding the fact that the potential of the Xsara on asphalt is capable of targeting some big points in the manufacturers' championship. When I realized that I would not be able to catch Alex Bengue, I concentrated on the five [manufacturers'] points that I would definitely be able to score for the team."
Well back of the firtst six, Manfred Stohl continued his strong start to the season in his OMV Norway-entered Peugeot 307 WRC. Albeit five minutes behind Loeb over the three days, Stohl nevertheless scored another two championship points to take his total for the year to 13 -- good for fourth place in the championship standings, ahead of the 10 scored by Petter Solberg in the works Subaru.
And, indeed, it was another disastrous result for the Japanese team; the top finished was third driver Stephane Sarrazin in eighth place, 20 seconds behind Stohl.
"This weekend was a bit difficult," the Frenchman said, in what was clearly an understatement. "We finished eighth only when the target was to be on the top. Last year we were fighting for the podium so we are a bit disappointed but if you want to be positive we didn't make any mistakes and we did some good times. I pushed all the weekend and we know what we need to do now, so we are focused on the next rally already."
For Subaru's marquee drivers, it was worse yet. Both damaged their Impreza WRC's exhaust in near-identical off-road excursions on Friday, and that set the tone for the weekend. The 2003 world champion, Petter Solberg, finished eleventh, nearly seven minutes off the pace -- and sandwiched by the Red Bull Skoda duo of Jan Kopecky and Harri Rovanpera -- while rising star Chris Atkinson could not do better than 13th.
The WRC circus now crosses the Atlantic again, bound for Argentina this time in three weeks' time. What's more, after two tarmac events, the next three are on gravel, and Gronholm must be looking for the opportunity to make up ground on Loeb, who now stands at 46 points, 11 ahead of Gronholm's total.