A surprising sting in the tail! What a finish! Just as we seemed to be heading for another top-three featuring Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen, Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich) went off on the final day to hand a welcome one-two to...
A surprising sting in the tail!
What a finish! Just as we seemed to be heading for another top-three featuring Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen, Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich) went off on the final day to hand a welcome one-two to the works Ford Focus/BFGoodrich drivers. The Finnish pair was joined on the podium by the defending champ's Spanish team-mate Dani Sordo who successfully warded off Henning Solberg's challenge to pick up six valuable Manufacturers' points for Citroen. In the Drivers' standings, Gronholm returns to the top of the table with a cushion of seven points over Sebastien Loeb.
The 2007 Rally d?Italia-Sardegna ended up springing more than its fair share of surprises. The weekend began with a strong early showing from Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford/BFGoodrich) who emerged on top after SS3 before shattering his steering against a rock. It continued with Marcus Gronholm inheriting the lead after SS4 before being forced back by a damper problem and, finally, Sebastien Loeb, who appeared to be totally in control, threw away his chances with an off on Sunday to hand victory on a plate to Gronholm.
The Sardinian mountain tracks that wind their way between Ala dei Sardi and Monti were as sandy and covered in as deep a top-coating of loose gravel as ever this weekend. Just ask Sebastien Loeb who, as provisional championship leader prior to the visit to the Mediterranean island, was forced to run first on the road on Day 1 and therefore sweep a clear line for his rivals following further down the order over the opening loop of 70-plus kilometres of stages. His extensively hand-cut, medium compound g-Force Gravel tyres helped him limit the damage however, and he managed to complete the first three tests in 5th position, just 10.4 seconds behind the leader. And with the top-five bunched together as tightly as sardines in a tin, the ensuing fight appeared to be extremely open!
But just as the scene seemed set for a thrilling showdown high in the sun-kissed mountains, a familiar curse struck the Ford Focus of Marcus Gronholm. After retiring while leading when a hole pierced his sump here in 2006, this time it was a loose remote damper reservoir that toppled the Finn from the provisional lead, allowing Loeb to profit from a faultless Leg 1 run to end the day in front, 22.4s clear of Gronholm and around half a minute ahead of Mikko Hirvonen. An all too familiar scenario seemed to be unfolding.
Once again, as Sebastien Loeb set about powering his Citroen C4 irresistibly clear of his rivals, there seemed to be nothing Gronholm could do to thwart the Citroen driver who doubled his cushion in the space of just three stages. It really did appear to be all over bar the shouting.
But Sunday turned out to be another day. The organisers had succeeded in finding three brand new, if short stages to the north near Tempio before the final run-in to the Porto Cervo finish ceremony. One of them, 'San Giovanni' always promised to be particularly tricky with 10km of undulating tracks featuring several awesome blind crests in the middle of thick bush.
It was on one of these jumps, some 4km from the start, that Sebastien Loeb saw his chances of a 33rd world class win and ten Drivers' points slip from his grasp. Travelling too quickly over a crest, the N1 Citroen C4 put a wheel on a verge and hit an enormous granite boulder. The impact buckled the Frenchman's front-left wheel under the car and the C4 came to a definitive halt a couple of kilometres further on. Marcus Gronholm was just recovering from an harmless spin later in the stage when he learnt of Loeb's retirement. After that, he was free to cruise home to the 27th WRC win of his career and regain the lead in the 2007 Drivers' championship with an advantage of seven points over Loeb.
In the Manufacturers' standings, Ford took a maximum 18 points, while Citroen limited the damage thanks to an impressive Dani Sordo who heroically warded off the pressure from Henning Solberg.
BP-Ford WRT: A conventional choice of medium compound tyres for the morning's runs and a hard compound for the afternoon's stages for Gronholm and Hirvonen. Mikko Hirvonen tried the new extra-hard compound on Saturday afternoon with a view to preparing for Greece.
Citroen-Total WRT: Similarly traditional choices for the Citroen pair who ran the '9' compound for the morning's loops before switching to the '9+' compound in the afternoon. Dani Sordo ran a medium compound with a hard gravel construction on the Sunday. This option wasn't ideally suited to the last day's tests but he had none of his medium compound/conventional construction tyres left in his personal quota. He nonetheless succeeded in defending third place.
Subaru WRT: The two Subaru drivers used the extra-hard compound g-Force Gravel on Friday afternoon but switched to the hard ('9+') compound on Saturday afternoon because the stages weren't really suited to the new tyre.
Quotes from Sardinia...
Patrick Letort, Chief Rally Technician, BFGoodrich
"The classic '9' and '9+' compound g-Force Gravel worked well on these stages which were both slippery and extremely hard on the tyres. As for the new g-Force Gravel 10, even though it wasn't used that much (and even then not always in ideal conditions: problems for the Subaru drivers on Friday afternoon and insufficiently rough stages on Saturday afternoon), the information we were able to glean from the rockier portions and when the weather was at its hottest suggests it will give good durability in Greece in two weeks' time. We also noted a high number of punctures this weekend but each time the mousse run-flat system did its job. On Saturday afternoon, Marcus Gronholm punctured after losing his spare wheel on SS11. Thanks to the mousse, however, he was able to complete SS12 without changing tyres. Again on Saturday, Sebastien Loeb finished the second loop with five damaged rims."
BFGoodrich podium After each round of the World Championship, BFGoodrich rewards the three best-placed privateers with a prize comprised of tyres. The podium in Sardinia was Henning Solberg, Toni Gardemeister and Manfred Stohl.