Rally Catalunya: Final summary

After two days of sunshine the rain finally arrived for the final leg of this year’s Rally Catalunya. Overnight rally leader Sebastien Loeb looked to have everything under control, going into the final stage of the rally with a 31-second...

After two days of sunshine the rain finally arrived for the final leg of this year’s Rally Catalunya. Overnight rally leader Sebastien Loeb looked to have everything under control, going into the final stage of the rally with a 31-second advantage over Gilles Panizzi. Peugeot man Panizzi had battled back throughout today, making up the time he dropped to Markko Martin (Ford) towards the end of leg two. With only 10.3 seconds over Martin, Panizzi had to push hard through the last test. He did just that, setting fastest time – which he thought was enough to clinch the runners-up spot. He’d managed that, but there was more to come. Loeb’s tyres weren’t working through the final test and the Frenchmen swapped places. Panizzi took Peugeot’s first win since Rally Argentina. Loeb was second with Martin third.

The chase for this year’s FIA World Rally Championship looks just as difficult as ever to call. Loeb leads the standings, although he and Sainz are tied on points, but the Xsara driver gets the nod, having won more rallies than his Spanish rival. Petter Solberg – who recovered from a 50-second penalty on the first day to make fifth place on the Lloret de Mar-based event is third with long-time series leader Richard Burns dropping to fourth, six points off the top, after crashing out of the event this morning.

Marlboro Peugeot Total

Technical: The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Gilles Panizzi and Marcus Gronholm ran without any reliability issues on leg three, while Richard Burns put his car off the road terminally on the final stage of day three’s opening loop.

Sporting: Panizzi’s decision to run on intermediate tyre with extra cuts worked well on stages 17 and 18, but he was concerned about the long stage and how the tyre would cope. In the end he had no problems, although he was annoyed that he didn’t go for a full wet tyre. His choice of an intermediate with cuts for the final loop worked a treat, however. Pushing hard to hold Martin off his second place, Panizzi emerged from the final test as winner after Sebastien Loeb had taken the wrong tyre. Despite taking the wrong tyres this morning, Gronholm was still able to catch and pass McRae on the third stage of the day. The outgoing world champion picked the right rubber for the final loop and elbowed his way up into sixth place at the finish. Burns’ rally ended on the third stage this morning, when the Englishman was caught out by the conditions.

Quotes: Richard Burns said: “It was a lot like Marcus in Sanremo. The car went off the road on some mud, hit the wall and broke the steering. I tried to go on, but straight away it was clear that there was nothing I could do about the damage. We don’t carry any spares in the car and that was the end of that.”

Marcus Gronholm said: “Horrible conditions today, really horrible. We made the finish, but didn’t really enjoy it. The second loop was better for us, when we had a better tyre for the stages.” Gilles Panizzi said: “This is amazing. I made the wrong choice of tyre at the start of the rally, but in the end I really made the right one. I came out of the stage and was only looking to see if I had managed to hold off Martin and keep my second place – then I heard about the problem for Loeb. Suddenly we had won; it’s magnificent.”

Citroen Total

Technical: The three factory-maintained Citroens ran without fault through the final leg, but Philippe Bugalski’s car suffered a ventilation problem through the last loop, which caused the windows to mist up.

Sporting: Loeb’s wrong choice of tyre cost him dearly in the 22nd and last stage. Having led the event since the second stage on Friday, he looked to have emerged from the morning’s deluge in one piece. He’d extended his lead and looked comfortable ahead of the final stage – only for it to all go badly wrong when he took the same tyre as the morning loop. He ended the rally second, but those eight points are enough to push him right back into contention for the drivers’ championship. Loeb’s team-mate Carlos Sainz is also in the thick of the battle for supremacy in the drivers’ title, although the Spaniard slips from the top of the points standings after dropping 40 seconds with an engine fault aboard his Xsara on the final stage of the day. This problem dropped him from fourth to seventh. Colin McRae dropped two places today, unable to resist the challenge of the Pirelli-shod Tommi Makinen and Marcus Gronholm. Philippe Bugalski brought his privately-run Xsara home in tenth position.

Quotes: Sebastien Loeb said: “I preferred to run with the tyre which I knew, which was the tyre I had this morning. That last stage was so difficult, just trying to keep the car on the road was exceptionally difficult. Now the championship goes down to the RAC, we will see what happens there.”

Carlos Sainz said: “I am glad to get to the finish, this afternoon has been so tough. I don’t know what the engine problem was – but I only just made it to the control at the finish.”

Colin McRae said: “Today was a very difficult day. The car didn’t work at all through the final loop, when the rain was even harder. The tyres weren’t right and the set-up was wrong, it felt terrible.”

Philippe Bugalksi said: “We had too much fog inside the car, they were awful stages – it would have been easy to go off the road.”

Ford Motor Company

Technical: Markko Martin’s car suffered an electrical problem and hydraulic failure through the last two stages. The sister car of Francois Duval ran without fault, while Mikko Hirvonen’s 2002 Focus was also mechanically reliable.

Sporting: Martin’s hydraulic problem came when he tried to pull the car into gear ahead of the penultimate stage. The Estonian had no option but to switch to the manual change for the last two stages. Despite this problem, Martin ended the event just 13.6 seconds off first place and just six tenths of a second off Loeb’s second spot. Francois Duval admitted he was taking his time through the first loop of stages, checking his pace notes and preparing himself for more of an attack on the second loop – where he anticipated a big fight with Carlos Sainz. He was never out of the top four positions on the afternoon stages. Mikko Hirvonen’s only drama was meeting an ambulance on one of the morning stages.

Quotes: Markko Martin said: “It’s so frustrating to be so close to the asphalt win which I have wanted this year. The time we lost on those last two stages with the hydraulic trouble was more than the gap between us and the win. Okay, that’s rallying. The team did an amazing job to change everything for me before the final loop to get the set-up right.”

Francois Duval said: “I’m really happy to come out of this fight with fourth place. Today was quite difficult, but through the afternoon – in the worst of the conditions – we came out and set some good times.”

Mikko Hirvonen said: “This is another rally which I have finished and gained some good experience of. It’s good that we got to drive in the wet and the dry – it’s not an easy rally to learn, though.”

555 Subaru World Rally Team

Technical: The Subaru Impreza WRC2003s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen ran without any problems on the third and final leg of the rally.

Sporting: This was by far the best day for Subaru. Throughout the rally, everybody from the Banbury-based team was agreed that the combination of an Impreza and Pirelli tyres would be hard to beat on the smooth asphalt stages. So it turned out. Solberg and Makinen both set a fastest time through today, revelling in the exceptionally wet conditions. Solberg moved up into fifth position, while Makinen eased his way into eighth. Solberg’s efforts have netted him a place in the final-round scrap for this year’s FIA World Rally Championship.

Quotes: Petter Solberg said: “This was more like it today. The car worked very well – we made some very minor adjustments to the transmission halfway through today, but everything was good. I don’t think I have been lucky that it rained, you could easily say the other drivers were lucky that it stayed dry. As for the championship, well it is looking better than it might have done. I have never been so happy to finish fifth in my life.”

Tommi Makinen said: “What a difference! Today I am much happier. For the first two days we have been a little disappointed, you certainly can’t say that about these stages. The car and the tyres are very good, it’s a shame it didn’t rain a little earlier.”

Skoda Motorsport

Technical: Toni Gardemeister’s Skoda Fabia WRC ran without any technical issues through the final day. Didier Auriol retired with clutch problems prior to the first stage yesterday.

Sporting: The third leg of this event was not a happy affair for Gardemeister. The day started badly when he was forced to change a puncture ahead of the morning’s first stage – he then stalled the Fabia on the line. Once he was into the stages, Gardemeister found traction hard to come by aboard the Fabia on the morning’s sodden stages. The team made some alterations to the car’s set-up for the second run of three stages, but there was little Gardemeister could do to improve his final placing of 12th.

Quotes: Toni Gardemeister said: “There was nothing in those stages, absolutely no grip. Zero. I don’t know what the hell was going on. Look at the times for one stage – we were two minutes off the fastest time and one and a half minutes off the fastest Michelin runner. This morning was very difficult, but this afternoon better – we had a softer tyre and took a lot of time off what we had done through the first loop.”

Other entries

Frenchman Brice Tirabassi took a comfortable win in the FIA Junior World Rally Championship, steering a safe course through the final day’s stages aboard his Renault Clio. Kirs Meeke took an equally untroubled second place in his Corsa, the Ulsterman impressing with his pace through the wet final day. Salvador Canellas (Suzuki) took the final podium place in the 1600cc category. Simon Jean-Joseph won the class outright, while Peugeot 206 WRC driver Cedric Robert was top privateer in 11th place.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team