Peugeot-Michelin's Gilles Panizzi clinched his first win of the 2003 season in the ultimate stage of this weekend's Catalonia Rally. In pouring rain, and despite leading from the morning of Day 1, SÃ©bastien Loeb (CitroÃ«n- Michelin) was unable to...
Peugeot-Michelin's Gilles Panizzi clinched his first win of the 2003 season in the ultimate stage of this weekend's Catalonia Rally. In pouring rain, and despite leading from the morning of Day 1, Sébastien Loeb (Citroën- Michelin) was unable to halt Panizzi's dramatic comeback and was forced to settle for 2nd spot by the margin of 13 seconds. Markko Märtin (Ford- Michelin) joined the two Frenchmen on the podium, while Carlos Sainz (7th, Citroën-Michelin) was passed on the final day by François Duval (4th, Ford- Michelin), Petter Solberg (5th, Subaru) and Marcus Grönholm (6th, Peugeot- Michelin). Loeb and Sainz go to the final round of the 2003 championship as joint leaders in the Drivers' classification, one point clear of Petter Solberg. In the Manufacturers' stakes, Citroën's advantage over Peugeot has been cut to a mere 5 points.
Despite ending Leg 1 in 4th position, more than 33s behind early leader Sébastien Loeb (Citroën-Michelin), Gilles Panizzi never gave up hope for a moment. Saturday's action saw the Citroën-Michelin driver maintain the pressure over the perfectly dry stages around Vic, posting seven top-four times from eight - including two fastests - to conclude the day in 3rd position, albeit still 36s behind Loeb.
But Sunday morning saw threatening storm clouds gather over the Costa Brava mountains and the third and final leg was run in torrential rain. By the end of the first attempt at the day's three stages, Gilles Panizzi had moved into 2nd position. Two stages later, with one test remaining (the longest of the rally, 35.18km), the 206 WRC driver had closed to within 31 seconds of Loeb's Xsara. And in a breathtaking finale, pushing home his advantage of running on softer tyres than his rival (see Michelin's Rally below), Gilles Panizzi was an amazing 44 seconds quicker. Victory on his final asphalt outing in Peugeot colours was his!
Yet it was Sébastien Loeb who had taken command of the rally on the opening day thanks to a judicious early tyre choice and he looked very much on target for his fourth win of the season. By the end of Day 1, the Citroën- Michelin driver had pulled out a cushion of 26 seconds over his own team- mate Carlos Sainz, while Leg 2 saw him control from in front. But with his lead whittled down to a little over 20 seconds, victory was by no means guaranteed, especially if the predictions of poor weather proved exact, since running 15th on the road could well prove something of a handicap because of the prospect of mud being dragged onto the stages by the first cars through.
The weathermen were right, but Loeb's advantage looked secure after the first three stages. However, when the Frenchman opted to keep the same relatively hard compound tyres he had used first time through for the second pass - when switching to a softer option would probably have been better - there was nothing he could do to resist the charging Panizzi.
Even so, eight addition points keep Sébastien's Drivers' title chances very much alive, especially since his fellow championship leader, Carlos Sainz (Citroën-Michelin), suffered the misfortune of falling from 4th to 7th place on the very same test.
The 2003 title will therefore be fought out in Great Britain between four drivers: Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg and Richard Burns. The Briton retired following an accident in Catalonia while in 6th position and now trails Loeb and Sainz by 5 points, but he still has a mathematical chance of clinching a second world title in three years. On the other hand, there is no hope left for either Markko Märtin (Ford-Michelin), 3rd in Spain, or defending champion, Marcus Grönholm (6th, Peugeot-Michelin).
The points secured by Panizzi and Grönholm in Spain have enabled Peugeot to close to within just 5 points of Citroën in the Manufacturers' classification, which means their battle too will go down to the wire in two weeks' time in Wales.
On the morning of Day 1, when the time came to choose tyres for the first group of three stages, all dry, temperatures were barely positive in the mountains surrounding the service park in Vic.
The obvious choice, especially with fog making the formation of damp patches a distinct possibility, appeared to be the 'zero' compound of the Michelin N, a product that has frequently proved its value on the Monte.
But by choosing instead to fit the harder Michelin N2, Citroën's Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz revealed the exceptional range of conditions in which this product revels by completing the opening loop in 1st and 2nd positions respectively. For memory, the same compound has recently already secured a high number of fastest times in much milder temperatures - up to 20°C - in Sanremo and Corsica!
Given that the majority of Michelin's testing for October's three asphalt events took place during summer's European heat wave, the first loop turned into a full-scale test session and the lessons learned were immediately put to maximum effect.
In addition to adjusting the set-up of their cars for the wet conditions for the second pass, Peugeot's Panizzi and Grönholm, and Ford's Märtin and Duval elected to use an even softer compound of the Michelin TA intermediate tyre, its pattern re-cut to make it into a 'maxi rain' product.
It was this choice that allowed Panizzi to steal victory at the last minute from Loeb who had chosen to run with the same - harder - product he had used for the first loop.