WRC Rd 4: Loeb wins, Solberg leads title, Peugeot extends lead

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April 10, 2005 With a near perfect performance in New Zealand, Citroen and Sebastien Loeb dominated the fourth round of the World Rally championship at the weekend (8-10 April 2005) leading the event from stage three to the finish in his Citroen Xsara WRC and again taking outright favouritism for the drivers championship. Loeb’s team-mate Francois Duval took fourth place, giving Citroen a bumper points haul and taking the team into second place in the manufacturers title, but with Peugeot’s Marcus Gronholm taking second and Markko Martin in fifth, Peugeot scooted further ahead in the quest for the constructors crown.

"It's wonderful to win here in New Zealand after our frustrating outings in Sweden and Mexico," said Sébastien Loeb at the finish in Auckland. "It shows that we were simply down on luck on those two rallies. I am particularly pleased with this weekend's result because we won in a straight fight with Marcus Grönholm and Petter Solberg. Also, winning on this terrain - which tended to be a little difficult for us in previous years - is a positive sign on two accounts. First of all, it proves that the Citroën Xsara continues to progress and, secondly, the fact that we are now competitive on fast gravel means we can hope for a top result in Finland."

The Citroën Xsara's winning form was compounded by the decisive contribution made by its longstanding partner Michelin, whose new Z 'BTO' tyre and hard compound performed marvels during the second passes through the stages which were run twice - and therefore cleared of their traditional loose gravel top-coating - despite the high ground temperatures in the hot sunshine.

The combination of the Xsara's excellent balance and its Michelin tyres allowed the defending World Champion to adopt an aggressive driving style which saw him emerge in front on Friday before pulling out a practically unassailable advantage of around a minute over his closest chasers on Saturday.

The question remains whether François Duval could have finished on the podium had he not been slowed by a fall-off in the performance of his brakes - the only problem to trouble the team's weekend - just as it looked as though he could challenge for a place on the podium. François is a driver who asks a lot of his brakes and the pads fitted to his car are the most effective possible but the price to pay for that is that they tend to wear more quickly and the second run through the long 'Bull' stage proved a little too much for them.

Sebastien Loeb, Citroen Sport, winner, now just one point from championship lead: "It's very nice to win here in New Zealand after our frustrating outings in Sweden and Mexico," said Seb. "It shows that we were simply down on luck on those two rallies. I am particularly pleased with this weekend's result because we won in a straight fight with Marcus [Gronholm] and Petter [Solberg]. Also, winning on this terrain – which tended to be a little difficult for us in previous years – is a positive sign on two accounts. First of all, it proves that the Xsara continues to progress and, secondly, the fact that we are now competitive on fast gravel means we can hope for a top result in Finland…"

Guy Frequelin, Citroen Sport team boss: "It was absolutely essential that we finished in the big points here. The fact that we won after only two previous visits to this event speaks volumes for the team's capacity to adapt and progress. Everyone was intent on finding the secret to winning in New Zealand and they have succeeded! The Xsara was involved in the fight at the sharp end from the start which shows its set-up was a perfect match for the Kiwi stages…"

Marcus Gronholm, Total Peugeot WRC, second: "Before the rally started I thought I could win, but this turned out not to be possible: the combination of Sebastien and Citroen was too fast to catch. In any case, I am reasonably happy to finish second. I had a big fight with Petter, but I was quite confident I could keep him behind me. I am happy with the reliability of the car; we have had two good finishes in a row and that gives me a lot of confidence. I am a little bit disappointed not to take the win, but generally speaking I am satisfied with our performance."

Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Team Principal, Total Peugeot WRC: "Firstly, this rally was perfect from a mechanical point of view: we did not have the slightest problem with either of the cars. Marcus drove a fantastic rally, attacking Petter Solberg with everything he knew, behind Sebastien Loeb who was just uncatchable here. As for Markko, it seems that he made a breakthrough on the final stage, and that he found a new way of driving that will put him at ease with our 307 WRC. Our goal of bringing both cars home in the points has been achieved: we keep the lead of the championship with 12 points in hand over Citroen and 15 over Subaru. There is still a long way to go, and we have to maintain this reliability but that alone is not enough. We are aware that we have to work closely with our tyre partner Pirelli in order to maximise the potential of the rubber and better understand the tyre range."

Petter Solberg, Subaru World Rally Team, third and leads title with 26 points: “I'm very happy actually. My plan for this rally was third or fourth place and we've come away with some good points and the lead of the championship. We knew it would be difficult right from the start. In fact we did okay but later on, on the hard and dry roads, we were far away. But that's how it is sometimes, I didn't want to lose those six points, so took it steady and went for the best possible finish. I'm feeling very positive about the championship now. For sure we have some work to do, but overall the feeling is good. I'm very happy with the new car and with 12 more rallies to go, things are looking very interesting.

David Lapworth, Subaru World Rally Team Principal: “For us, it's mission accomplished. We came here with a very clear strategy - to finish on the podium and Petter has done exactly that. He's kept out of trouble, there not a mark on the car, he hasn't taken any risks and has maintained his lead in the Championship. It's not easy for any of us not to drive for a win, but I think it was the right thing to do and now Petter goes into a run of events that suit him. Chris has had a very good weekend. His times on Friday underlined his potential and he's learned an enormous amount about the event, which will put him in a very strong position next year. That's exactly what he came here to do.

Francois Duval, Citroen Sport, fourth place and first points for the season: "My target was always to finish inside the top five," underlines. "I needed to score my first points with the team and I couldn't have taken more risks than I took. It was only my second outing on gravel with the Xsara and I succeeded in being consistent. I am really very happy with this result…"

Markko Martin, Total Peugeot WRC, fifth: "I have made a big step in understanding how to drive the 307 WRC on this rally, but I think I discovered it a bit late. I tried changing my driving style during the last afternoon of the rally and it seemed to work well: I was able to pass Toni Gardemeister and take fifth. I need to left foot brake a bit more, but this is quite a different driving style to what I am used to. The final result could have been better, but it's more important that I understand the 307 WRC and our new Pirelli tyres as best as I can, so this rally has been an extremely useful experience."

Toni Gardemeister, BP-Ford World Rally Team, sixth: "The morning started well. I was quicker than Martin on the first stage. On the next I was nervous about the condition of the tyres so I drove carefully at the beginning. The final 10km were twisty and narrow so I tried to keep the Focus on the clean line in the road that had been created by the cars ahead. It was still pretty slippery so I drove as smoothly as possible. I chose harder compound tyres for the final stages but because there were no new tyres left in our allocation, I had to use ones with an older construction. The grip wasn't quite as good as the new version. I tried my hardest, but I couldn't keep Markko behind me. A points result is always good but I'm disappointed not to finish fifth. I would have been much happier if I could have finished in front of him."

Malcolm Wilson, BP-Ford team director: "After losing one of our drivers before the start following an accident, a points finish is a good result and extends our scoring record to 48 rallies. On the other hand, I'm disappointed Toni lost out to Markko on the final stage. It's the second rally in a row where we have lost places on the last stage. We paid the price for using our allocation of new construction tyres on the first two days. It's nobody's fault, just the way the rules are.”

Chris Atkinson, Subaru World Rally Team, seventh and first WRC points: It's good to get to the finish, but it would have been nice to get a better result. It's a bit of a shame that we lost some of the pace we had earlier in the rally. The plan was to build up the speed, but in fact we've ended up doing pretty much the opposite. We've certainly learned a lot about the set-up of the car though. Some things worked well, others not so well. The last two stages actually felt pretty good, I was much more comfortable with the handling, but at that point there was no reason to push too hard. Overall I'm pretty happy. We did some good times this weekend, and that's encouraging, the pace is there, but I need more time in the car to go fast all the time.

Gigi Galli, Mitsubishi, eighth: "Our goal was to get to the finish and be in the points, so I think we did our job well. We had some technical problems in the first leg and then today we drove these stages for the first time; they are very twisty and complicated but we didn’t have any problems. Personally I have to feel very satisfied with our own performance."

Isao Torii, Head of Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports: "Even though Gigi added to his and the team’s points tally, this has been a disappointing rally for us. We expected more but have experienced technical problems and for this we cannot be happy. Both cars finished the stages, but we struggled with the tire wear and we have to analyse this, do our homework and work to overcome such problems".

Mario Fornaris, Mitsubishi Technical Director: "Harri ended up driving with no rubber on the rear wheels on the road section back to Auckland and there was no sense in carrying on like this. On the one hand this has been our most difficult event this year, but Gigi continues to perform well and very consistently. We have to continue working with Pirelli, as tires have been our main problem during this rally. We know that Harri has a more aggressive driving style, which causes the tires to wear maybe 10/20% more, but we have to find some solution to this".

The Next Round

Round five of the FIA World Rally Championship, the all-gravel Rally Italia Sardinia, starts on 29 April. Despite moving to the spring for 2005 from it's previous autumn date, the character of the event should remain largely the same, featuring medium to fast roads covered in fine gravel. The rally will be based in the millionaire's resort of Porto Cervo, while the service and headquarters will be situated at the industrial port of Olbia. Including 17 stages and 530 competitive kilometres, the three-day event will conclude on Sunday 1 May.

Odds for WRC Drivers Title After Race

P Solberg 2.00 S Loeb 2.37 M Gronholm 8.00 M Martin 9.00 T Gardemeister 15.00 F Duval 67.00 H Rovanpera 81.00 G Panizzi 101.00

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