WRC Acropolis Rally: Faultless Loeb puts M-Sport on top

World Rally Championship legend Sebastien Loeb leads the Acropolis Rally after a faultless Friday morning on his return to the tough gravel event for the first time in 10 years.

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The nine-time world champion benefitted from an advantageous road position on the dusty gravel stages, but once again showed his class to win all three stages of the morning loop. The 48-year-old, partnered by Isabelle Galmiche, became the oldest driver to lead a WRC event eclipsing the record perviously held by 1979 world champion Bjorn Waldegard set in 1991.

Sitting seventh overnight, the M-Sport driver has climbed into a 6.4s lead over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who won last night’s super special played out in front of 64,500 spectators inside Athens’ Olympic Stadium.

M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet ended the morning third, 8.0s adrift, but 0.9s ahead of Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi, with Hyundai’s Ott Tanak fifth. The top 10 was completed by Dani Sordo (Hyundai), Elfyn Evans (Toyota), Gus Greensmith (M-Sport-Ford), championship leader Kalle Rovanpera (Toyota) and Takamoto Katsuta (Toyota).

Following Thursday night’s curtain raiser, the rally moved to the traditional gravel stages held in the mountains to north west of the capital city.

It didn't take long for the dust to cause havoc as three minute gaps between cars contributed to limited visibility.

However, it was Loeb, who made the most of his road position and experience to win the day’s opening stage, taking the overall rally lead in the process.

The M-Sport driver managed to pip his French Ford teammate Loubet by 0.8s, while title rivals Tanak and Rovanpera were third and a fourth fastest respectively, having faced the worst of the road conditions.

While Rovanpera enjoyed no issues with visibility being first on the road, he struggled as road sweeper, and with the handling of his Toyota, leaving him 2.6s adrift.

Neuville was fifth fastest, dropping three seconds in the process but was angered by the dust hanging in the air.

“We have no visibility. Suddenly it is fifth gear and full flat out and you see nothing and you don’t know where you are. It is unbelievable," said Neuville.

“We ask for more minutes [between cars], we knew the sun was low, we knew there was dust, we knew there was no wind and nobody gives a shit.”

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Thierry Neuville was fuming at the small gaps between cars, which created a dust problem.

Thierry Neuville was fuming at the small gaps between cars, which created a dust problem.

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

M-Sport’s Craig Breen completed the stage sixth quickest ahead of Evans, before a small fire broke out at the rear if his Puma at stage end, which was quickly extinguished.

Officials made the decision to increase intervals to four minutes between the cars for the next test which was also won by Loeb.

This time Loeb pipped Neuville by a second while Loubet’s strong start continued as he set time 2.6s shy to move into third overall.

After struggling on the opening test, Rovanpera lost 10.5s on Stage 3 as the Finn complained about the balance of his GR Yaris.

"I think we are just not having the right things on the car at the moment,” said Rovanpera. “ It feels like the car is not working in the low-speed sections and I think we are going to lose some time.”

Rovanpera wasn’t the only Toyota lacking speed as Katsuta, making his Acropolis debut, found himself almost a minute adrift by stage end and was at a loss to explain his lack of speed.

The morning was concluded by second pass of the day’s first Loutraki stage which saw Loeb complete a hat-trick of stage wins, although on this occasion the Frenchman shared the fastest time with Lappi.

Sordo emerged third fastest ahead of Greensmith and Loubet, who were battling brake issues with their Pumas. Neuville was sixth quickest as the Belgian lost 3.7s to leader Loeb.

There was drama for Katsuta as his tough morning was further hampered by an overshoot which cost him another 15s. Tanak also lost time without the full use of his hybrid power. However, worse was to befall Breen, who picked up a puncture and lost two minutes, dropping him out of the points, having held fifth spot.

A frustrated Breen, who has crashed out of the last three rounds, said "I seem to be getting it all [bad luck] at this point.”

In WRC2, Teemu Suninen, who began the day second overall after impressing in Thursday night’s super special, slumped to 13th and fourth in class behind Emil Lindholm, Nikolay Gryazin and Yohan Rossel.

Prior to the action beginning this morning, WRC released statement acknowledging the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

“The whole WRC community joins the world in mourning Her Majesty's loss and we send our condolences to the British Royal Family and to the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth." read the statement.

It is understood organisers are discussing plans for a formal tribute during the event. WRC cars are already carrying tributes to the championship’s PR and communications manager Mark Wilford, who sadly lost a battle with illness last week.

The rally continues this afternoon with crews scheduled to tackle a further three stages.

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