May 1, 2005 Sebastien Loeb dominated the Italian round of the World Rally Championship at the weekend (29 April - 1 May), guiding his Citroen Xsara to victory over Petter Solberg by nearly a minute and in the process taking over the lead in the World Rally Championship from the Subaru driver. Loeb's domination of the rally of Sardinia - he lead from stage three to the end of the event and scored twice as many stage wins as his nearest rival - was achieved through the reliability of his Citroen Xsara, an excellent choice of tyres and a skilful and well paced drive from the Frenchman. Team mate Francois Duval managed to score manufacturers points despite a first-day roll off the track into the bush that left his Xsara on its side and minus a rear wheel. Following repairs and a re-start, he went on to finish in 11th place.
Despite his domination and entering the final day with nearly a minute's lead, it was not a done-deal for Loeb. The last leg had no service area visit during the day, so reliability was essential, as was an accident free day, and Solberg was on one of his infamous hard-charges, trying to make up lost time.
"There was no wind and, like everyone else, I was hampered by the fairly thick cloud of dust thrown up by the preceding cars," said the reigning World Champion at the finish. "I therefore lifted each time I had to and pushed hard as soon as the conditions allowed. The car was perfect. In the following stages, I was careful not to make any mistakes while keeping a close eye on the times of my closest chaser, Petter Solberg. Winning back to back in New Zealand and here in Sardinia has put us back in the lead of the championship and promises some exciting battles to come!"
Following two disappointing results, the Citroen team is now back on track in its battle to hold on to the drivers' and manufacturers' World Rally Championship titles it won in 2004.
Final positions Rally Italia Sardinia.
1. S Loeb (Fra) / D Elena (Mon) - Citroen Xsara 4hr 06min 33.7sec 2. P Solberg (Nor) / P Mills (GB) - Subaru Impreza +0.59.6 3. M Grönholm (Fin) / T Rautiainen (Fin) - Peugeot 307 +2:07.3 4. M Märtin (Est) / M Park (GB) - Peugeot 307 +4:12.3 5. T Gardemeister (Fin) / J Honkanen (Fin) - Ford Focus RS +8:29.3 6. R Kresta (Cz) / J Možný (Cz) - Ford Focus RS +9:29.2 7. A Warmbold (D) / M Orr (GB) - Ford Focus RS +9:59.8 8. J Pykalisto (Fin) / M Ovaskainen (Fin) - Citroen Xsara +10:21.2
FIA World Rally Championship (after round 5 of 16)
Drivers Championship Points: 1. S Loeb 35pts 2. P Solberg 34pts 3. M Märtin 28pts 4. M Grönholm 26pts 5. T Gardemeister 24pts 6. H Rovanperä 11pts
ManufacturersChampionship Points: 1. Peugeot 54pts 2. Citroen 43pts 3. Subaru 36pts 4. Ford 33pts 5. Mitsubishi 24pts 6. Skoda 5pts
Odds for World Title following the race: S Loeb 1.90 P Solberg 2.20 M Martin 11.00 M Gronholm 11.00 T Gardemeister 21.00 F Duval 101.00 H Rovanpera 126.00
Sebastien Loeb, Citroen, first place and new points leader: "There was no wind and, like everyone else, I was hampered by the fairly thick cloud of dust thrown up by the preceding cars," said the reigning World Champion at the finish. "I therefore lifted each time I had to and pushed hard as soon as the conditions allowed. The car was perfect. In the following stages, I was careful not to make any mistakes while keeping a close eye on the times of my closest chaser, Petter Solberg. Winning back to back in New Zealand and here in Sardinia has put us back in the lead of the championship and promises some exciting battles to come!"
Guy Frequelin, Citroen: "We have won two rallies in a row, both in a straight fight and both in events in which we were somewhat dominated last year by Subaru. Our win in New Zealand was a positive pointer for the fast gravel rallies to come, while our result here in Sardinia is also very promising since the heat and rough portions were a foretaste of what we are likely to come across in the next three rounds. Once again, the Xsara and our Michelin tyres formed a winning combination and Sebastien made the very most of their potential. My only regret is obviously the fact that we weren't able to capitalise on this in a more concrete manner in terms of the Manufacturers' championship. That said, I am pleased with the strong runs of the privately-entered Xsaras and I would also like to underline that, as in the Monte Carlo Rally, we scored a WRC-JWRC double this weekend."
Petter Solberg, Subaru World Rally Team, second: "I am very happy actually. In the circumstances it's good to take second place and I'd like to thank everyone in the team for their hard work. It's been a good fight with Sebastien, but of course I'd hoped it would be a lot closer. But, it didn't happen like that and so I've got the best result I could. At this point in the Championship it's still very close and I think it's going to be a very interesting year. The key thing we have to do is work harder to find some more performance, but we have a good plan and I'm 100 per cent confident that we will succeed."
David Lapworth, Subaru World Rally Team Principal: "In the surprisingly warm conditions we've experienced this weekend it was always going to be difficult to secure a win, especially with Petter running first on the road on Leg one. Petter has driven very well all rally, he and Sebastien made it a two-horse race, but in the end Loeb's advantage on the second run through the stages proved too much. The eight points keep the Championship battle wide open and it will be interesting to see what happens on the forthcoming gravel rallies. The next three events form the toughest point of the season and they've been the focus of our preparations for the last few months. Chris and Stephane both stuck exactly to their pre-event plans, they've built their pace day-on-day, gained a lot of experience and have both shown a very impressive turn of speed. Chris's fastest stage time certainly attracted the spotlight today but Stephane's times this afternoon, on his first ever gravel rally, were equally remarkable."
Marcus Gronholm, Peugeot, third: “I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to pass Harri, especially when I saw that he was fast on the first stage today. I thought my only chance would be to keep him under pressure, and this tactic must have worked because he went off on the following stage. It’s been a tough rally – maybe the toughest of the year – but the car has once more been perfectly reliable which is very encouraging. Now I would like to find a bit more speed.”
Peugeot Team Manager, Jean-Pierre Nicolas: “It’s been a good rally for Peugeot in the constructor’s championship, we score 11 points and stay in the lead with an 11-point advantage over Citroen and 18 over Subaru. The big satisfaction is that we’ve not had the slightest problem with either of the cars. The pairing of Loeb and Citroen were untouchable here, but without his roll on day one Marcus could have finished second. It’s clear that we have to continue to work hard in order to give our drivers a car to their complete satisfaction, and we especially have to continue our close collaboration with Pirelli in order to put ourselves in a position to win rallies.”
Markko Martin, Peugeot, fourth: “There was not a lot I could do today apart from try and drive safely to the finish. That still required the maximum concentration, because the conditions and the stages were extremely difficult. But I’ve learnt a lot on this event about the car and the tyres, which will be very useful for the three rough and hot rallies coming up in Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.”
Toni Gardemeister, BP-FordWRT, fifth: "I was cruising today, driving at a pace which ensured I finished. Considering I wasn't pushing, I was happy with my stage times. We scored good points and when I was throwing stones for five hours in the dark in the woods last night waiting for the team to come and collect our car, I didn't think that would be possible. It's been a tough weekend, but one that has turned out well. My pre-event test helped establish a good set-up for the Focus and, although I'm not 100 percent there yet, everything is heading in the right direction."
Roman Kresta, BP-Ford WRT, sixth: "I can't believe it! It was vital for both me and the team to finish this rally. Just being here at the end was my primary target. I've driven very, very carefully and it paid off. Not only did I finish, but I finished in the points and took my best result. The first stage this morning was so dusty it was like driving in fog but otherwise all has gone well today." Antony Warmbold, Privateer Ford seventh : "I had an alternator problem all day but I adjusted the belt before the final stage to ensure we had enough charge to make the finish," said the German, whose Focus RS was pushed into the final service park. "I made a perfect tyre choice today and although it's been a tough three days, I'm so happy."
Isao Torii, Head of Mitsubishi Motor Sports: “We have moved into our second quarter target, which is to ask the drivers to push harder. Harri was second-best early this morning and he tried really hard to keep third position overall. That is very positive and although his retirement is disappointing, his spirit and performance is very satisfying. The car is getting better and better and the drivers’ confidence improves all the time. Gigi had several technical problems but showed good speed and his fastest time shows he has big potential. Both drivers did a good job and I am confident in them and the car.”
Harri Rovanpera, Mitsubishi Motor Sports, DNF: “We hit a rock and broke one of the front right suspension components,” said Harri. “We didn’t have a spare in the car and tried to fix it using tools and clips, but we only managed to get another three or four kilometres before it broke again. Okay, it’s disappointing but we agreed we would go for it today and these things can happen; it’s better to be fighting for the podium position. We proved we can push in these conditions and that both cars, with a clean run, can be very competitive. Hopefully we can carry this through to Cyprus.”
Gigi Galli Mitsubishi Motor Sports, DNF: “Four corners into the stage I lost three gears,” said Gigi. “In 100 rallies I don’t think I can remember an event where I have had so many problems. Obviously it’s a big disappointment for me, the team and my Italian fans, but it is my attitude to always look on the positive side. When we had a clean run we were really able to fight and setting one fastest time was very satisfying. It’s a tough event but we are making progress, experience and kilometres all the time. Every rally I take something positive home.”
Mitsubishi Motor Sports Technical Director Mario Fornaris: “Harri’s performance this morning was excellent and he was faster than Marcus (Grönholm) and it seemed possible to be on the podium. I feel very sad for him and Risto, but on the positive side we showed that the car and drivers can perform very well and go fast in the stages. We have consistently been among the best Pirelli runners and at this time we must satisfy ourselves with the improvements to the car. We will continue working hard and face the next rally with a good fighting spirit.”
Stéphane Sarrazin, Subaru WRT: "Very good, I'm very happy and think I've improved over the weekend massively. I've made positive steps all the time and I'm happy because I've been fighting with Kresta, Henning Solberg, Higgins and many drivers that have done this a lot more than I have. It's been a good weekend's work, no crashes. I didn't take too many risks because I'm still not confident enough, but it's a very good start before the next gravel rally. One week ago, I had never driven on gravel, but now I feel I'm starting to be a good driver on a range of surfaces."
Chris Atkinson, Subaru WRT: "We had another good day out there today, I'll always be happy to get a fastest stage time. Overall I'm pleased with what we've learned here in Sardinia. We've found a good pace and a car set-up that I'm comfortable with. It's a good basis to build upon and the rally has been useful preparation for the new few events. I'm looking forward to them."
The Next Round: The holiday island of Cyprus plays host to round six of the FIA World Rally Championship. Starting on 13 May, Rally Cyprus is the slowest and hottest rally of the World Championship, making it a true endurance test for drivers and cars. The air temperature can regularly exceed 30°C during the three-day event, putting the emphasis on stamina and physical fitness. The rally's 18 tests take place high up in the picturesque Troodos mountains, which offer a calm and rustic contrast to the bustling tourist resorts along the coast. At 38.32km, the longest stage will be the Lagoudera - Spilia stage used as SS1 and SS4, while, at 7.57km, the shortest will be the Asinou - Agios Theodoros stage used as SS3 and SS6.