Solberg secures third straight Wales Rally GB win
19 September 2004
For the third year in a row, Petter Solberg can leave Wales with a massive smile on his face, after the reigning WRC champion claimed another win on Wales Rally GB.
Solberg, who was 29secs behind after just three special stages on Friday morning, slowly reeled in Sebastien Loeb – eventually hitting the front on the penultimate stage.
At the start of the final day, the focus was firmly on Loeb and Solberg out front – the duo involved in the only realistic battle in the points scoring positions.
Separated by just 7.3secs overnight, the pair headed into the first stage of the morning, Rhondda, with Solberg determined to make his move. However, the Norwegian driver pushed a little too hard and ran wide part way through the 30km stage. Although the loss of time was minimal, Solberg headed back to service having seen Loeb extend his advantage to 8.6seconds.
Markko Martin was third fastest through the stage to consolidate his third place with challenger Carlos Sainz behind him in fourth. But Solberg wasn't the only one to go off during the first run through Rhondda, but for Mirco Baldacci there was no comeback. The Suzuki driver, who had started leg three at the head of the Junior World Rally Championship runners, rolled his Ignis during SS16, allowing teammate Guy Wilks through into the lead, the Brit taking a commanding lead over Kris Meeke into the final three stages.
After service, the crews returned to Rhondda for a repeat of the opening stage of the morning and this time there were no mistakes from Solberg. The Subaru was five seconds quicker than the Citroen through the stage as Solberg closed the gap to a matter of seconds at the front with only two stages, one of those the short Super Special, remaining.
Martin was again third, but with Sainz some 15 seconds further back, the Estonian virtually secured his place on the podium. Duval recovered from brake problems to set the fourth quickest time ahead of the Peugeot of Harri Rovanpera, the sixth placed Finn slowly increasing the gap to Mikko Hirvonen in the second Subaru. And the battle for the final point was also hotting up as Mark Higgins and Manfred Stohl fought to be top privateer. Higgins, in a 2002 spec Focus WRC had started the leg with a 30 second advantage, but 60kms of running through Rhondda had seen the Austrian driver slice the gap down to just 2.8 seconds as the crews headed to Margam.
As the final stage of the 2003 championship, the Margam Park stage already holds special memories for Solberg as the place where he sealed his World Title last season. And it was Margam where Solberg finally edged himself into the lead.
This time it was Loeb who ran wide, and a half spin was all it took for the Citroen man to lose his advantage. Although his time loss wasn't excessive, Solberg blasted though the stage 9.2 seconds quicker to give himself a near six second lead heading into the final stage. With only 2.45km of competitive running left, it was now Solberg who was firmly in the driving seat, safe in the knowledge that a second WRC win a row was his for the taking.
However, for the second day in a row Margam would end the chances of one of the leading cars. After Toni Gardemeister lost half an hour on Saturday afternoon when he went off on SS14, it was the turn of Mark Higgins to hit trouble. His Focus stopped in the stage, although he managed to recover to get to the finish. However a time some 22 minutes slower than Solberg saw Higgins plummet out of the points and down to 16th. That left Stohl nearly five minutes ahead of Nicolas Vouilloz and safe, barring any last minute problems, in the final points scoring position.
Unsurprisingly, the third and final run through the head-to-head Super Special in Cardiff had no effect on the standings, Solberg narrowly beating Loeb as the duo lined up alongside each other to take the victory by 6.3 seconds. Martin set the quickest time on the stage as he finished third, ahead of Sainz with Duval fifth and Rovanpera sixth. Hirvonen and Stohl then completed the points scoring postitions.
Ten points for Solberg sees him close the gap to Loeb, but eight for the Frenchman means he still has an advantage of 28 points with just four events remaining and remains the hot favourite for the championship.
With a lead of over two minutes once Baldacci had retired, Wilks had only to finish the event to take maximum points – the ten points making it a dream home event for the Suzuki man who jumps to the top of the JWRC standings. Kris Meeke made it a British one-two by following him home in Opel while Kosti Katajamaki rounded out the podium.