They traversed 137.36km over six stages over the gravel route in leg two of the Rally d'Italia in Sardinia in the seventh round of World Rally Championship competition and like in most of this year's WRC events, Sebastien Loeb took charge by...
They traversed 137.36km over six stages over the gravel route in leg two of the Rally d'Italia in Sardinia in the seventh round of World Rally Championship competition and like in most of this year's WRC events, Sebastien Loeb took charge by taking the lead on Saturday's second stage (SS8 -- the first pass of Monte Lerno) when yesterday's leader Marcus Gronholm faltered.
"It's (his lead) at that sort of pace when you can drive most safely," commented Loeb. "Tomorrow we've got to tackle six stages without service in between. We've got to stay very concentrated... "
Gronholm's run on Friday was all for naught when the twice WRC champion hit a rock, causing damage to the Ford's sump beyond repair. The Finn retired the Focus from round seven's competition.
"Everything was going fine as we approached a left corner just before a hairpin right. I even braked early because I wasn't in a hurry and there was no pressure," said a frustrated Gronholm. "But there was a big stone on the line and I hit it under braking. It was a surprise because I didn't see it and I hit it with the middle of the left wheel. There was a big bang as the rock hit the sump and the oil pressure warning light came on. I thought it was a sensor problem initially so I continued for another 800 metres but the engine oil had come out and I had to stop."
The Kronos Racing privateer Citroen entry with Loeb at the helm continues to be in command of the 2006 season with last year's Xsara -- the same car that for the past two seasons has landed Loeb his back-to-back WRC titles. Already this year, Loeb has a commanding points lead and if his luck continues, it will expand over the Ford factory driver Gronholm at the end of the day tomorrow.
Loeb was not free of the problems that beset the other teams when on SS8, ""at the 24th kilometre, according to Daniel(Elena), a big impact with a rock embedded in the road surface hit the front of the car."
"The handling didn't seem to be affected, so I continued to push. Then we were told that Marcus had retired, putting us in the lead," Loeb continued. "At the end of the stage I examined the car carefully, but there was no real damage. The Xsara is certainly tough!"
The Frenchman has a chance to garner his 25th career win breaking the tie with Tommi Makinen and leaving his just one added victory to tie the overall win record held by Carlos Sainz. This year, he has notched four WRC wins while Gronholm holds two on the season.
Loeb's commanding lead over second overall Mikko Hirvonen is more two minutes and 17 seconds. Third driver for Kronos Racing Dani Sordo is close to 40 seconds adrift of the Ford driver as the two will have a heated battle on the final leg with Gigi Galli sitting third, a mere 1.3-seconds behind Sordo in a Peugeot privateer entry.
Like his teammate, Hirvonen escaped after hitting a bank early this morning, the Ford crew patched the young Finn's Focus back together so he could continue to battle for a podium spot and earn valuable points for the manufacturers' title chase.
"I can't afford to make any more mistakes now. I had no battles today and it's hard to drive like that because I didn't find a rhythm and I lost concentration," explained Hirvonen on his incident. "I stepped up the pace a little this afternoon and it felt better. I enjoyed the stages more. Maybe driving flat out is a better choice.
It's important to finish this rally for me and the team but it will be tough with no service during the day and I need to be really careful. I've never been in a position to take a podium where I've not had to take risks and push so this is new for me and I need to be sharp."
For Sordo, this is a good test of his abilities. The 2005 Junior World Champion driver is having his best run in the top rung of rallying this weekend and if it holds, he could land on the podium, albeit no points for the team and yet he remains like calm: "It's great, but to enjoy this podium I have to get to the end of the rally," he said.
"In the meantime, what I've enjoyed most about my third gravel rally in a World Rally Car is the feeling that slowly but surely I am making progress. The car is perfect for me, and I feel increasingly confident driving it," Sordo said. "My experience of different and difficult conditions such as those we found here is growing, and my times are getting better: an important objective for me here. Tomorrow, I'm going to keep concentrating hard so that everything finishes on the same positive note."
The final leg on Sunday will cover six special stages totaling 77.94kms.