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Solberg takes Aussie thriller, Loeb second

7 September 2003


The final day of this year's Telstra Rally Australia, round ten of the FIA World Rally Championship, provided a fascinating battle between overnight leader Sebastien Loeb and second-placed man Petter Solberg.

Loeb's 5.1-second advantage was turned over on the first stage by the Subaru driver, as Solberg eclipsed his rival on the first run through the Sotico forest complex south-east of the rally's Perth base. The Frenchman returned thanks to a combination of picking a tyre which was better suited to SS22 and Solberg going off into a field, dropping six seconds, on the second test.

The third stage of the day brought the third change at the front of the field as Solberg went back in front – this time, however, he held the position to the end of the event. The Norwegian admitted that, despite heavy rain for the entirety of the test, he was able to control his eight-second advantage through the split times which were being fed to him by the team. Loeb took the wrong tyres for the final loop of the event and ended this year's Telstra Rally Australia 26.6s back. Second remains a very impressive result for only his second visit to the rally, though.

Peugeot's Richard Burns completed the podium positions and extended his lead in the drivers' championship, while Colin McRae won the race to be second Citroen home, edging his fellow Xsara driver Carlos Sainz out of fourth place. Peugeot and Citroen are level at the head of the manufacturers' standings.

The Subaru Impreza WRC 2003s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen ran without problems today.

Solberg's victory is his second of the year. The Norwegian and Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb have been fighting for the lead of the rally since Marcus Gronholm retired late on the opening leg. Solberg didn't lead the rally on his own until the first stage this morning, an off on the next test dropped him back behind Loeb – but he went into the lead again on the penultimate stage, this time making it stick to the finish.

Solberg's team-mate Makinen took the wrong tyres for the first loop of stages this morning – running on an older compound of Pirelli which would have worked better in wet conditions. The four-times word champion elected not to chase Sainz and McRae through the final loop, settling for sixth place and three points on his final visit to Australia.

"This has been a fantastic battle and a really interesting weekend," said Solberg, "I honestly do prefer to go into the final stage in second place; I prefer to be the hunter. I was caught out by some mud earlier in the day when I went into the field, but apart from that everything has gone well. I have to say Sebastien has driven really well, given that he doesn't have so much experience of this event or driving on gravel – but it's a fantastic feeling to win."

Makinen added: "Without me hitting the bank yesterday and taking the wrong tyres this morning, maybe the result could have been different. As it is, I'm pleased to have scored some points and with the way the car ran. Now we're looking forward to seeing what we can do on the asphalt."

At Citroen meanwhile all the Xsara WRCs ran without mechanical problems for the final leg of the event.

In the end the wrong tyre choice for three of the day's four stages cost the Frenchman valuable time in his battle to win his first ever gravel round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Loeb finished the event second, without any major problems through the three days. His performance on only his second ever Telstra Rally Australia drew credit from all quarters.

Colin McRae's event ended better than it had started. The Scot and his Spanish team-mate Carlos Sainz were fighting for fourth position and fastest time on the final stage of the rally secured the place for McRae.

Loeb said: "Right now I am a little bit disappointed with the second place, but really this result is fantastic for me. I came here looking to finish somewhere in the points, maybe sixth or seventh – so this is good, but it would have been nice to win – after our tyre choices, that was very difficult."

McRae commented: "It hasn't really been a brilliant weekend, but we have made it to the finish. The car was working well, we didn't have the brake problems which we'd experienced at the start of the rally. Today's stages were more representative of the pace we could achieve – and it was a good fight with Carlos."

Sainz added: "I was pushing really hard against Colin, but at the same time I knew that getting four points for fifth place was better than none at all if I had gone off the road."

Over at Peugeot both Richard Burns and Harri Rovanpera's 206 WRCs ran reliably through the final leg. Marcus Gronholm retired from the lead of the event when he slid into a ditch on SS8.

The final leg was a quiet one for the Peugeot team, as Burns steered a safe course through the final day, deciding that it wasn't worth trying to catch the two cars ahead, at the same time managing the gap between himself and fourth-placed Colin McRae.

It was a similar story for Rovanpera, who was happy to get to the end of a disappointing event for him. The Finn finished the rally in seventh place.

"Today has been quite quiet for us, no problems," said Burns, "Finishing in third is good for the championship, it means we have opened up more of a gap at the front."

Rovanpera added: "This has been the kind of rally where anything which could go wrong for us has gone wrong. It hasn't been my best event. But having said that, it is better than the result we had on the last round in Finland [where he crashed]."

At Ford Mikko Hirvonen's 2002 specification Focus RS WRC suffered throttle problems on the last two stages this afternoon. Francois Duval's 2003 Ford ran reliably for the final leg, while the sister car of Markko Martin was excluded for being in breach of Appendix J Article 252 2.2 last night.

Hirvonen caught team-mate Duval on the penultimate stage of the event to beat the Belgian to ninth place and the final manufacturers' championship point. Duval dropped time with an overshoot on the final test and ended the event tenth. Both drivers were happy that they had gained valuable experience on the Australian stages.

Martin's car was excluded when scrutineers found a rock inside the Focus, used as ballast, which had contravened FIA regulations.

Hirvonen said: "This is a great result for me. The throttle problem is one that we have had before; the throttle sticks open when you are braking for the corners, which pushes the car on and makes it difficult to get through the corner. Then on the straights it wasn't responding properly, so we couldn't get the full power straight away."

Duval added: "Mikko has driven very well on this rally. For me it was really important to get to the finish, especially after I crashed on the final leg in Finland. The overshoot in the last stage cost me a lot of time, we were going flat out when I missed the junction – so we had to handbrake it and come all the way back up the road. I would say we dropped 20 seconds."

Team boss Malcolm Wilson added: "We broke a rule and were excluded, that's that, but it's very disappointing."

At Hyundai Armin Schwarz's car ran reliably today, while Freddy Loix's Accent WRC suffered a repeat of the shock absorber problems which have troubled him all rally.

Loix admitted he was pushing as hard as he could in order to try and keep the Fords of Mikko Hirvonen and Francois Duval behind him. He hung on to finish the event in eighth place, just a shade under ten seconds ahead of Hirvonen, scoring two manufacturers' points and a drivers' championship point. The set-up of Schwarz's car was lowered and the German felt happier at the wheel of the Accent. He brought the car home in 13th place.

Loix said: "The stages today were really fast with quite a lot of deep gravel in places, so they weren't going to suit our car so well, but we went flat out and made it here in the right place. It's good for me and for the team that we have some points."

Schwarz added: "Okay I made the finish, but this was a very difficult rally. Today the car did feel better, the stages went well, but with the time lost on the first two legs, there wasn't much we could do about the position."

Didier Auriol's Skoda Fabia WRC suffered loss of hydraulic pressure on the first loop of stages this morning, while Toni Gardemeister's car ran without problems.

Auriol's hydraulic problem dropped him back behind his team-mate Gardemeister and into 12th place. Gardemeister's one-armed drive continued, and while 11th overall might not have seemed like much reward, he was awarded the Inmarsat Star of the Rally for his gutsy drive.

Auriol said: "The hydraulic trouble meant we had no differentials, clutch or anything. The problem started just a few kilometres into the first stage this morning. The car was really difficult to drive, very hard work. It's a disappointing end to the event for us."

Gardemeister noted: "I have been pushing harder today and my arm hasn't been causing me any pain. The car was good, but in some of the fast sections on the first loop of stages it felt a little bit down on power – a bit lazy. Maybe this could have been the deep gravel sapping some of the power."

Of the other entries British driver Martin Rowe took his maiden win in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship. The Subaru Impreza driver's only problem was bending the steering on the first loop of stages. He now holds a seven-point lead over Toshi Arai going into the final round of the series.

Karamjit Singh placed his Proton second, while Niall McShea was third in a Mitsubishi Lancer, dropping down a place after a puncture on SS22.



Rally statistics:

Starters: 34 crews (15 Group A and 19 Group N) started this morning.

Top retirements: Martin (EE).

Today - Sunday 7 September: Leg 3 started from Perth at 07h00 and covered 474.61km, including 117.11km on four stages.



Stage by stage summary - Leg 3:

SS21 Bannister North (24.81km):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 13m 11.9
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 13m 17.6
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 13m 18.5

Leaders after SS21:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 2h 45m 21.6
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 45m 22.2
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 46m 51.7

SS22 Bannister South (34.16km):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 16m 00.1
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 02.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 16m 09.1

Leaders after SS22:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 3h 01m 22.3
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 3h 01m 23.6
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 3h 03m 00.8

SS23 Bannister West (24.69km):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 12m 22.6
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 12m 28.1
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 12m 28.6

Leaders after SS23:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 3h 13m 46.2
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 3h 13m 54.2
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 3h 15m 33.5

SS24 Bannister Central (33.45km):
1. McRae (GB) Citroen 18m 10.0
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 18m 14.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 18m 20.9

Leaders in Perth after SS24 / Leg 3:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 3h 32m 07.1
2. Loeb (F) Citroen +26.6
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot +1m 53.0
4. McRae (GB) Citroen +2m 30.7
5. Sainz (E) Citroen +2m 37.2
6. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +3m 01.5
7. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +4m 03.9
8. Loix (B) Hyundai +7m 00.7
9. Hirvonen (FIN) Ford +7m 10.6
10. Duval (B) Ford +7m 46.2

FIA PCWRC leaders after SS24:
1. Rowe (GB) Subaru 3h 22m 24.9
2. Singh (MAL) Proton +1m 57.0
3. McShea (GB) Mitsubishi +2m 39.0
4. Blomqvist (S) Subaru +9m 38.4
5. Sola (E) Mitsubishi +10m 20.5
6. Roman (S) Mitsubishi +27m 42.8



Final rally statistics:

Event: The rally covered 1795.16km, including 386.31km on 24 special stages (including five run twice and one superspecial run 4 times). All stages were on gravel roads closed to other traffic.

Starters: 49 crews (19 Group A and 30 Group N) started the rally.

Finishers: 32 crews (13 Group A and 19 Group N) finished the rally.

Stage winners:
Solberg (SS1-7-8-11-12-14-15-21-23)
Loeb (SS5-6-8-9-13-16-17-18-22)
Martin (SS4-19-20)
Gronholm (SS2-3)
Duval (SS10)
McRae (SS24)

shared times in bold


Rally leaders:
SS1 Solberg
SS2-7 Gronholm
SS8-11 Loeb
SS12 Loeb/Solberg
SS13-20 Loeb
SS21 Solberg
SS22 Loeb
SS23-24 Solberg


FIA World Rally Championships:

FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers (after 10 of 14 rounds): Burns (GB) 55, Solberg (N) 48, Sainz (E) 48, Loeb (F) 45, Gronholm (FIN) 38, Martin (EE) 37, C. McRae (GB) 33, Makinen (FIN) 21, Rovanpera (FIN) 18, Duval (B) 11, Gardemeister (FIN) 9, Panizzi (F) 6, Auriol (F) 4, Robert (F) 3, A.McRae (GB) 3 Hirvonen (FIN) 3, Schwarz (D) 3, Tuohino (FIN) 2, Loix (B) 1, Ginley (GB) 1, Lindholm (FIN) 1.

FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers (after 10 of 14 rounds): Peugeot 110, Citroen 110, Subaru 74, Ford 61, Skoda 20, Hyundai 12.

FIA Junior World Rally Championship(after 4 of 7 rounds, this event not counting): Tirabassi (F) 28, Carlsson (S) 18, Canellas (E) 17, Aava (EE) 16, Wilks (GB) 15, Katajamaki (FIN) 10, Ligato (RA) 10, Broccoli (RSM) 9, others.

FIA Production Car World Championship(after 6 of 7 rounds): Rowe (GB) 37/5, Arai (J) 30/5, Singh (MAL) 30/6, Blomqvist (S) 26/5, Sola (E) 22/5, Ligato (RA) 13/5, McShea (GB) 8, others.


Next event - October 2-5: Rallye Sanremo-Rallye d'Italia.




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