Sainz takes record 26th win in Rally Argentina

Sainz takes record 26th win in Rally Argentina

And then there was one: with the top challengers having fallen to the wayside one by one, it was left to veteran rally driver and two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz to claim the laurels in Rally Argentina. Carlos Sainz and Marc...

And then there was one: with the top challengers having fallen to the wayside one by one, it was left to veteran rally driver and two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz to claim the laurels in Rally Argentina.

Carlos Sainz and Marc Marti.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Sainz took the 26th victory of his long and storied career -- he won his championships in 1990 and 1992 -- by driving fast enough to keep teammate and 2004 championship leader Sebastien Loeb easily at bay, and yet cautiously enough to avoid the attrition that hit his key rivals.

The 26 wins are enough to eclipse the 25-victory mark previously shared by Sainz and the British veteran driver and 1995 World Champion Colin McRae, who retired from rallying at the end of the 2003 season.

"The record is important, but more important than that is the victory and the way it came," the Spanish veteran explained after the finish. "On the last rally I didn't feel so well and after that rally I wasn't very happy. Before this rally I thought I had to make a good rally and I did that. I won here 13 years ago, two years ago and I am winning again here is more important than the number."

In all, 40 of 69 starters -- well more than half -- failed to finish the grueling rally. And in spite of their top-notch service facilities, the top factory teams were hit as hard as everyone else.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
Markko Martin was the first of the front-runners to drop out; the Estonia ace went off the road at over 160 km/h in the fifth stage of the rally, barrel-rolling his Ford Focus before his destroyed car finally came to rest.

"The notes in the recce are very important," reflected Loeb on the Martin crash. "He didn't have the stone in the notes. We drive at 70 in the recce, but then we come at 180 in the race so it's important to concentrate as much in the recce as it is in the race."

Next was Subaru's Petter Solberg, the defending World Rally Champion. The Norwegian had trouble with water splashes, first losing his lead to Marcus Gronholm on the same SS5, and then suffering a terminal failure in the second pass through the same stage.

Peugeot's #2 driver, Harri Rovanpera, then experienced a power steering failure on SS7, dropping him back by some ten minutes.

And Sebastien Loeb, who had to be the first car on course in the first leg, by virtue of his championship lead, fell back, with a gap of some 30 seconds to rally leader Marcus Gronholm and to Sainz.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
Then, on the second day, two-time World Champion Gronholm hit a rock -- hard -- with his Peugeot 307 and tore off the front wheel. He tried to limp to the service point with three wheels, but the timing belt failed, and his rally, too, was done.

With most of the championship challengers fallen by the wayside, and Loeb more than a minute and a half back, there was little question of racing for position. Instead, the biggest question mark left for the final day was whether Sainz would be able to complete the rally without a mishap or mechanical failure.

In the event, he ws able to do that, beating out Loeb (1:36 behind) and Ford's second driver Francois Duval (3:55 off the pace) for the victory. Mikko Hirvonen was fourth in the second Subaru, 8:46 behind Sainz.

Peugeot's #2 driver, fellow Finn Harri Rovanpera, showed what the 307 was capable of on the final day, setting three fastest stage times in the last leg's five stages and making up almost 40 seconds on Sainz -- but not enough to catch Hirvonen for fourth place.

Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
"After the problem on the opening day our car gave us no trouble at all for the rest of the rally, so I am very frustrated by the thought of what we might have achieved here," Rovanpera recounted. "We were conscious that we had to get to the finish, so there was no point in taking any risks and we tried to drive as cleanly as possible."

Overall, Gronholm and Rovanpera combined to take for 14 stage victories on the event's 26 specials for Peugeot, which bodes well for the next event on the calendar: Rally Finland, the team's "second home rally."

Corrado Provera, the Peugeot team principal, was philosophical: "It is clear that our objective of winning the manufacturers' championship becomes impossible. Our target now is to make the 307 WRC a winner by the end of the season -- and we will work tirelessly to achieve that goal."

Local hero Luis Companc Perez drove his privateer Peugeot 206 to a creditable sixth-place finish, just ahead of the Mitsubish works driver and tarmac specialist Gilles Panizzi.

Privateer Antony Warmbold pushed his 2003-spec Ford Focus hard in the final stages, but could not catch Argentine driver and 2001 Production WRC Champion Gabriel Pozzo for eighth place.

Citroen now has a 27-point lead in the Manufacturers' Championship, and Loeb is 17 points ahead of Solberg in the Drivers', so it is looking more and more like Citroen's year. But it's clear that others -- Gronholm, Martin and Solberg -- have the pace to make life rather challenging for the French team this year yet.

"A year ago our strength was our performance in rough and twisty events," recalled David Lapworth, the Subaru team principal. "With the 2004 Impreza we now relish the faster events, too and both Petter and Mikko will be going for it in Finland."

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team