A memorable fight earns a 27th world class win for Citroen/BFGoodrich's Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena! A 27th WRC win for Sebastien Loeb who beats the record previously held by Carlos Sainz Just 5.6 seconds split Loeb and Marcus Gronholm...
A memorable fight earns a 27th world class win for Citroen/BFGoodrich's Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena!
A 27th WRC win for Sebastien Loeb who beats the record previously held by Carlos Sainz
Just 5.6 seconds split Loeb and Marcus Gronholm at the flag in Japan
With Gronholm joined by his team-mate Mikko Hirvonen on the podium, BP- Ford/BFGoodrich edges closer to Total Kronos Citroen/BFGoodrich and in the 2006 Manufacturers' World Championship standings
World rallying history books will remember that it was on the Japanese island of Hokkaido that Sebastien Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich) notched up the 27th World Championship win of his career after a thrilling clash with Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich). Loeb's score of 27 wins takes him one better than the record previously held by Carlos Sainz. Today's result also sees the Frenchman pull further clear in the Drivers' championship, although BP-Ford WRT has succeeded in narrowing the gap that separates it from Kronos Total Citroen at the sharp end of the Manufacturers' standings to just 11 points thanks to Mikko Hirvonen's 3rd place and the post-finish exclusion of Xsara driver Dani Sordo.
The gap between the winner and his closest chaser has never been this close in world class rallying this season: after 27 stages totalling 345.72km of against-the-clock action, a mere 5.6 seconds split winners Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena from silver medallists Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen at the chequered flag.
Yet it was the latter pair who had emerged as the early pacesetters during the first half of the event. At the wheel of their Ford Focus WRC06/BFGoodrich, the Finns got off to a flying start in Friday morning's demanding, wet and muddy conditions in the wooded hills situated a hundred or so kilometres north of host town Obihiro. But the Frenchman was swift to react and the gap between the two crews stabilised at around the 10-second mark. The second loop of stages changed little and Gronholm concluded the opening leg with a margin of exactly 10.5s over Loeb. Meanwhile, just as he had done in Finland a fortnight previously, Mikko Hirvonen joined the leading pair on the overnight podium, although some way back already, while Petter Solberg competing on the home ground of his employer Subaru fell from contention after losing almost 2 minutes with brake problems on SS4.
Sunshine greeted crews as they set off for the second leg, yet the stages on Japan's northernmost island Hokkaido were as difficult as they had been the previous day, with a mix of wet and dry stages. And probably the most challenging of them all was the 20.75km Niueo test, the third of the day. The choice of tyres for this stage was made particularly complex by the fact that decisions had to be taken at the morning service park, just before 6am. Loeb and Gronholm both chose soft compound BFGoodrich g-Force Gravels, but Loeb opted for extra 'cuts' in the pattern of his, while Gronholm chose to run without any 'cuts' at all.
The Frenchman was 6.8s quicker than the Ford driver on Niuero, closing to within practically 6s of his rival. And he continued to pile on the pressure over the following stages which saw Gronholm initially lose some 20s following a spin, and then a further 10s in SS15 after another 'moment'. The former World Champion's misfortunes handed a lead of 27.9s to Sebastien Loeb as competitors returned to Saturday's lunchtime service in Obihiro.
Never one to give up without a fight, Marcus fought back strongly on the final day. With the gap between the two champions standing at 25.6s on Sunday morning, the Finn knew that the remaining 93km of fast, extremely narrow and still damp stages probably the toughest of the weekend were his last chance. The first group of three tests saw him close to within 15.7s of the Citroen driver and he then threw everything he had into battle over the final two 'true' stages of the rally. In SS25, Loeb dropped 6.9s as Gronholm narrowed the gap down to 8.8s and, as the WRC fraternity held its breath back at service, the Finn was again quickest by 3.4s over the 24.88km of SS26. However, with only one last run over the short and twisty 1.3km Obihiro super-special to come, there was now nothing he could do to prevent Loeb from scoring a record-breaking 27th World Championship success which also edges the Frenchman a step closer to a third consecutive Drivers' world title.
The mission assigned to both Mikko Hirvonen (3rd Ford/BFGoodrich) and Dani Sordo (7th , Citroen/BFGoodrich) was above all to score Manufacturers' points for their respective teams. Mikko practically made sure of 3 place thanks to his performance on Day 1 before defending his position to the flag. Meanwhile, competing in Japan for the first time, Dani Sordo concentrated on reaching the finish which, given the low number of nominated WRC entries in Japan, he knew would be practically synonymous with valuable championship points. The Spaniard fulfilled his mission to the letter, securing 7th place overall at the flag. However, he was later excluded from the results for having failed to re-fasten his harness belts after getting out of his car to help remove the stranded machine of another competitor which had been blocking a stage. Kronos Total Citroen consequently finished with four fewer points than BP-Ford WRT which allows the British squad to close the gap at the top of the Manufacturers' standings to just 11 points.
After two 'fast gravel' rounds in Finland and Japan, the 2006 WRC is now poised to move on to the rougher terrains of Cyprus and Turkey. All BFGoodrich's partner teams have already completed their testing for these two fixtures and closing date for tyre nominations for the first of the two eastern Mediterranean events is Monday September 11. Before then, BFGoodrich's drivers will also have nominated their individual quotas for Rally Australia (Thursday September 7).
Sebastien Loeb, Citroen/BFGoodrich: "My 27th World Championship win was possibly one of my finest. My battle with Marcus was fantastic. We chose the same tyres all weekend. Only the amount of 'cutting' differed on occasions. The biggest problem concerning tyres this weekend was in fact having to nominate our package for this event two months prior to the start. This weekend, I used just one set of '9-' compound g-force Gravels and significantly more of the '8' compound. Getting the range exactly right in the final choice is very difficult."
Marcus Gronholm, Ford/BFGoodrich: "I'm obviously a little disappointed but it was still a great fight with Sebastien. I made two mistakes and I feel especially frustrated by the second, on SS15. The conditions were difficult throughout the weekend with a mix of muddy portions offering hardly any grip and much drier sections. It wasn't easy driving flat out for three days. When the fight gets this fierce, you really need to have confidence in your tyres. My only problem was that Sebastien had the same ones as me!"
Patrick Letort, BFGoodrich Technical Crew Manager: "This rally was made particularly difficult because of the conditions which were wet and muddy throughout, with lots of changes in the grip available on certain stages. Our drivers mainly used the softer compounds the '8-' (very soft) and '9-' (medium soft) but with different degrees of 'cuts' to help clear the loose gravel and mud. Rally Japan's very fast yet very narrow stages call for tyres that give good grip but also excellent steering precision. Meanwhile, Leg 1's wet stages gave us an opportunity to validate a certain number of solutions for this year's Rally GB. We just need to check what we've learnt in testing in colder conditions."