Loeb breaks Nordic domination
8 February 2004
Citroen's Sebastien Loeb broke the Nordic domination of the Uddeholm Swedish Rally today [Sunday] by becoming the first driver from outside Sweden or Finland to win the rally in its 54-year history.
He claimed his second consecutive WRC victory, finishing 46.4 seconds ahead of Marcus Gronholm.
"It is great for me to win here," said the Frenchman, "Before the event I didn't really think this was possible, but when we came out of the big fight on day two with the lead, then it was good.
"It's very good for me to win on a surface that's not asphalt and the snow is very much like gravel, so hopefully this looks good for those events later in the season."
Loeb's Xsara WRC ran faultlessly through the two loops of three stages to the north of the rally's Karlstad base today. Heavy overnight snow continued into the morning, with the day's second test contested in particularly testing conditions. Loeb emerged unscathed, however, not only building his lead in the drivers' championship standings, but also making history.
His task was made easier when Gronholm spun on the opening stage and dropped more than 30 seconds. The Finn eventually finished second, to give the team's new 307 WRC its very first podium finish.
"After I spun this morning, I knew there was no point in risking everything to push hard," commented Gronholm, "It was just a typical spin, nothing special, but it cost us half a minute. Then I concentrated on making sure that I could come back and score the first podium for the 307 WRC. The car is still very new, and this is a good result under the circumstances. I made a couple of mistakes and we also had a problem with the power steering on the first day, so I think we definitely had the possibility to win here. But there is still a lot more to come from the car – it's not perfect yet."
Petter Solberg meanwhile completed the podium with private entrant and brother Henning completing the top six behind Ford's Janne Tuohino and the limping Carlos Sainz, whose engine troubles on the last two stages cost him 30 seconds.
Solberg enjoyed a more straightforward day than yesterday, when a mixture of mechanical trouble and spins, cost him valuable time and the chance of challenging for victory. In the end he was pleased with third, his best result to date in Sweden.
"It's been incredible, I'm very, very happy," noted the reigning world champion, "It's been a real adventure to drive over the past few days, very hard work and our luck has been up and down, but third is a good result. There's much more speed now and I'd say that my performance on snow has increased 100 per cent. I have to admit that before this event I was a little worried by my previous record here in Sweden, but I enjoyed this event and to have some points early in the year is good news."
The fight for fourth was tight this morning during the opening three tests, however in the end Tuohino came out on top, after Sainz experienced mechanical woes in the final two tests, letting the Finn canter home as Ford's second nominated driver.
"A happy ending to the weekend would have been for Carlos to finish behind me and that's what happened," stated Tuohino. "This morning I made my tyre choice based on the middle stage, which was the longest and most important of the three. Snow tyres were the right choice and we were fastest. I'm really happy with the result and delighted with two fastest times, but still a little unhappy to have dropped time at the end of the second day, otherwise I may have finished third. I came here to enjoy myself on my first rally for Ford and I've done that."
Sainz however was disappointed he couldn't fight to the death.
"I had noticed the engine temperature shoot up and then go down again on the first stage this afternoon, but then on the next one [SS18] it dropped onto three cylinders," explained the Spaniard, "I don't know exactly what caused the problem, maybe a head gasket or something related. It's a real disappointment, but at the same time I've gained a lot of confidence from this rally."
Privateer Daniel Carlsson, scored the final drivers' point in eighth, while early leader, Markko Martin eventually came home seventh - the Estonian is still mad at himself though after throwing away yesterday what was practically a dead cert win.
"One mistake yesterday cost us a lot," commented Martin, "It has been a strange rally as everyone seems to have made mistakes but we paid a high price for ours. On Friday we did everything we could to take the lead, but in the end it just didn't happen for us. I'm disappointed for myself and for the team. It will take a while to get over this. It hurts a lot and I still can't believe it happened.
"Let's see how many days it takes before I sleep properly again. Sweden has a lot of surprises for me. I can drive fast here but I can't put it altogether. People say drivers shouldn't lean on the snow banks but you have to here, it's part of the job. We were just unlucky that there was a rock there."
Of the other manufacturer entries, Mikko Hirvonenn came home ninth, while Francois Duval - not nominated by Ford for points on this event - was running 45th at the end of stage 19, only to be withdrawn by the team at the final service park. His mission was simply to gain experience of all the stages, and with that accomplished nothing was to be gained by being included in the overall classification.
"We have done all the stages, which has given me more experience, and made improvements to our notes and that's good for next year," explained Duval. "I wasn't nominated for points so that took the pressure off me. My result wasn't really important but I would have preferred to have spent less time pushing and digging my way out of the snow!"
Overall then 49 competitors crossed the final line in Karlstad, 70 having started on Friday. The most noticeable retirements were Gilles Panizzi, Kristian Sohlberg, and Peugeot's Freddy Loix - gearbox woes accounting for the Mitsubishi duo, while engine problems sidelined Loix.
"It wasn't an easy rally for me," reflected Loix. "The engine started misfiring on the second day, then 14 kilometres into SS12 it stopped completely. The most positive thing is that I've done more kilometres in the 307 WRC, so hopefully we can use that experience to improve our performance."
In the Production Car World Rally Championship category Jani Paasonen took the opening round honours in his Mitsubishi Lancer. The Finn had controlled the pace in the Group N-based series from the outset, although he was concerned by an engine fault, which was developing over the final leg.
Britain's Alister McRae returned to the world championship and took second place in the Production Car standings at the wheel of a Subaru Impreza, while Daniel Sola completed the top three.
Swedish racing driver Matthias Ekstrom won the Group N category overall, taking a comfortable victory at the wheel of his Mitsubishi Lancer.
The WRC now moves to North America next month for the eagerly anticipated third round of the FIA World Rally Championship - Rally Mexico. Starting on Thursday 11 March the brand new three-day gravel event will be based around a single service park in the host town of Leon. Crews will contest a mixture of mountainous gravel roads and a competitive distance of 394.43 kilometres, over three Legs and 15 stages. The longest stage will be the Ibarilla - Mesa test at 30.47km, and the shortest the 15.42km Derramadero stage.