Solberg clinches Australian cliffhanger After four days of fierce duelling, Petter Solberg has come out on top of a battle with CitroÃ«n-Michelin driver SÃ©bastien Loeb to clinch the 2003 Rally Australia. Until the final day, there had been...
Solberg clinches Australian cliffhanger
After four days of fierce duelling, Petter Solberg has come out on top of a battle with Citroën-Michelin driver Sébastien Loeb to clinch the 2003 Rally Australia. Until the final day, there had been very little in it between the two youngsters but the Norwegian star ultimately profited from his superior experience of the terrain to ease clear over the last group of stages. Only one man could ultimately win this cliffhanger of an event of course, but the points harvested by both drivers has transformed them into genuine title candidates. Richard Burns (Peugeot-Michelin) still leads the Drivers' championship this evening however, but his team has now been joined at the top of the Manufacturers' classification by sister company Citroën-Michelin.
In a season marked by some of the closest competition in years, the 2003 Rally Australia will be remembered for yet another exceptional battle, this time between two of the championship's younger contenders: Citroën- Michelin's Sébastien Loeb and Subaru driver Petter Solberg. But although the Frenchman spent the majority of the weekend at the top of the timesheets, it was finally his Norwegian rival who clinched the decision on the final afternoon.
Loeb emerged in the lead when Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot-Michelin) slid off the road on Friday afternoon, thereby putting paid to his chances of collecting a fourth consecutive win in the Perth-based event. With the defending World Champion out of the way, Loeb, on only his second visit to the country, proceeded to take the WRC fraternity by surprise by maturely taking control.
Ahead of much more seasoned campaigners, including Solberg and no fewer than four former champions, he completed Day 1 in front thanks to a string of four fastest stage times and was still in command the following evening. But as the weather turned wet for the last day, the advantage of experience over Leg 3's highly specific and challenging forest stages finally tipped the balance in favour of Solberg who put in a last gasp effort to overhaul the Xsara driver and secure his second victory of the year.
Ten points for the Norwegian and a further eight in the bag for the nonetheless satisfied Frenchman have put both drivers very much in contention for the 2003 Drivers' title. The man who joined them on the podium, the ever-consistent Richard Burns (Peugeot-Michelin), still leads the provisional classification however and has in fact extended his cushion at the top. But with four drivers now grouped within ten points in the Briton's wake, and with two-times champ Marcus Grönholm also still in the running, the last four rounds of the season promise to be absolute thrillers!
In the Manufacturers' championship, this weekend's result has left two makes level-pegging in front, with Peugeot-Michelin now joined by Citroën- Michelin who had the satisfaction of getting Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz to the finish in 4th and 5th places ahead of Tommi Mäkinen (6th, Subaru).
Their task was helped by the disappearance of Markko Märtin (Ford-Michelin) who seemed to be shaping up to challenge Burns for a place on the podium before the stewards excluded him for an "illegal ballast" infringement.
Loeb impresses in exciting clash of Titans
Experience counts in Bunnings. After yet another WRC nail-biter, the notorious 'Bunnings' forest complex (now known as 'Sotico') provided the decisive backdrop to the duel between Citroën-Michelin's Sébastien Loeb (on only his second visit to Australia) and 2002 podium finisher Petter Solberg (Subaru).
But with none of today's stages repeated, their unique challenge put the accent on experience, while uncertain weather conditions - would it rain or wouldn't it? - made tyre choice for the two final tests particularly difficult.
Loeb's choice. For the final group (which turned out to be wet), Loeb ultimately opted for the '9' compound of the proven Michelin ZE, a product that has contributed to Grönholm's successes here in recent years, and which also enabled his team-mates Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz to claim the two fastest times on the last stage.
However, in the end, the fact that the Frenchman had never previously competed on, nor even tested this product (pre-event testing is not authorised for events outside of Europe), made it difficult for him to compensate for his experience deficit compared with the eventual winner.
Congratulations must however go to Sébastien who has put in an excellent drive throughout this weekend to become a genuine contender for the 2003 Drivers' championship thanks to the eight points collected in Perth.