Loeb profits from Gronholm's woe in Argentina
28 April 2006
Reigning world champion, Sebastien Loeb has ended the opening leg of the Rally Argentina, the sixth round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship, in his customary position at the top of the leaderboard.
Loeb won four of the events opening ten stages and inherited the lead from early leader, Marcus Gronholm when the Finn was forced out with mechanical problems.
The Frenchman, who had a poor start to the event, spinning in SS3, something that dropped him down to seventh overall, put in a charge after that and pulled himself back up to second ahead of the mid-day service. He then went in front after Gronholm's Focus lost drive in SS8 and the Kronos Citroen ace will go into the second leg with a 19.8 second advantage.
Petter Solberg meanwhile is second, 'best of the rest' for Subaru and while it hasn't been an easy day for the Norwegian, compared to the last two asphalt events, he has been in a different league and critically right on the pace and in contention for the win. Indeed he probably would have been a lot closer to Loeb tonight, if he hadn't hit a gatepost in SS4, smashing the window on the co-driver's side of the car and if he hadn't had a puncture in SS5. A ten second penalty for arriving one minute late at the time-control for SS9 didn't help his bid much either!
Gigi Galli lies third on only his second event with the Bozian ran Peugeot 307. The Italian has shined on his gravel debut with the Pirelli backed car and is reportedly much more confident with it on this surface. A podium would be a great reward for him, especially as it would be his best WRC finish to date, after just missing out on third in Sweden back in February.
Further-down the order, Manfred Stohl heads OMV Peugeot Norway team-mate, Henning Solberg, the two separated by around 20 seconds. Stohl would have been higher up the order but he lost over 40 seconds in SS6 with a wheel problem. He ended the day though on a high by posting the quickest time in SS10. Henning meanwhile, on his debut in Argentina opted for a cautious approach this morning and continued to set some solid times this afternoon, although he did slip back behind Stohl.
Next up is Daniel Sordo, in the third Kronos Racing ran Citroen Xsara WRC. Although he wasn't happy with the car on the first loop, sixth is a good placing on what is only his second event with a WRC car on gravel.
Subaru's Chris Atkinson and Matthew Wilson round out the top eight, the latter currently poised to score his ever WRC drivers' point, assuming he can avoid any problems over the remaining two days. Wilson has been impressive and is 30 seconds or so up on his Stobart VK team-mate, Luis-Perez Companc, who also incidentally is the best of the local drivers, in ninth.
Gareth MacHale completes the top ten, in his privately entered Focus, while Frederico Villagra leads the Group N category in eleventh, one place ahead of Sebastian Beltran, who is over 2 minutes up on Nasser Al-Attiyah, his nearest rival for the Production Car WRC honours.
As for the Junior WRC, Guy Wilks has led from the off for Suzuki and already looks to have the class win in the bag, providing he can just finish. His main rival and Suzuki team-mate, Per-Gunnar Andersson retired from the leg in SS3, while Patrick Sandell is currently the only other JWRC runner still going in his Renault Clio, albeit 4 minutes adrift. Jaan Molder is classified third, despite going out on SS5, when he a rock in a water-splash and damaged the steering on his Fiesta. Assuming he can re-start, he will be over 25 minutes adrift but still set to take third, as P-G, will be a further 8 minutes behind.
Of the rest, there were three 'works' retirements. Xavier Pons was the first to go when he managed to hit something at the start of Cabalango-Carlos Paz 1 [SS6]. Although he continued he had to stop later on when his Kronos Xsara caught fire, probably due to an oil or fuel leak.
Next out was Gronholm when he stalled at a bend 8 kilometres from the start of the second run through Capilla del Monte-San Marcos [SS8]. When he tried to re-start he was unable to find any drive and was thus forced out of the leg.
His team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen followed him onto the sidelines in the very next test, when his Focus went down to two cylinders. Although he stopped and changed the spark plugs it made little difference and as such, rather than risk further damage to his car, he had to pull off on the side of the road. Not a good day then for the BP Ford squad, who had looked set to fight for the win and score some 'big' points.
Assuming those three will be able to re-start under the SupeRally format on Saturday, Hirvonen will do so from 14th, over 10.5 minutes off the lead, while Gronholm will start from 20th, a further 5 minutes or so back. Pons is currently classified 33rd, 25mins 23.2seconds off his team-mate.
The action now resumes on Saturday at 08.48 hours local time [12.07 hours British time] - eight stages lay in wait, amounting to around 150 competitive kilometres.
There is still a long way to go...