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France - leg 3: Home win helps Loeb cut gap

14 October 2007

Sebastien Loeb won in Corsica on Sunday and in the process further improved his title hopes, cutting Marcus Gronholm's advantage at the top of the drivers' championship back to just four points.

Loeb took the lead on the second loop on Friday, after losing out to Gronholm and his team-mate, Daniel Sordo in both SS2 and SS3 - SS1 having been cancelled due to spectator problems.

Following the first service on Friday, Seb was 4.1 seconds off Gronholm and 1.2 seconds behind the sister C4 WRC. He soon turned the tables on the repeat runs however and moved up to P2 in SS4, when he was 1.1 seconds up on Gronholm and 4.5 seconds quicker than Dani.

Lobe then went in front on SS5, with his second stage win in succession, before completing a hat-trick in SS6. After that he pulled further and further ahead increasing his lead from 4.8 seconds at the end of leg 1, to 27.5 seconds at the end of day 2.

Indeed the triple world champion dominated the second day, winning five of the six stages and beating Gronholm in every single one, 2.7 seconds up on him in SS7, before adding another 3.8 seconds to his lead in SS8 and another 1.3 seconds to his cushion in SS9.

Seb thus returned to the lunch time halt yesterday having increased his advantage from 4.8 seconds to 12.6 seconds. In the afternoon he continued to pull away and while Sordo won SS10, Loeb was only 0.3 seconds slower - and significantly 4.4 seconds up on Gronholm. The Citroen #1 driver then took another two stage wins in SS11 and SS12 and finished the day with a 'near' perfect run.

After pushing hard on Saturday to build a good cushion, Loeb just paced himself through the final four tests today [Sunday], winning the first one for good measure and then eventually coming home 23.7 seconds ahead of Gronholm.

It was his third win in succession in Corsica - and his seventh of the season with the C4 WRC and with three rounds to go the race for the 2007 drivers' title is now wide open.

Gronholm for his part looked strong initially however, as the event progressed he was unable to match Seb's pace.

Indeed despite pushing as hard as he could he was more often than not second best to the Frenchman and while that meant he was unable to win, he did have the measure of Sordo and the Spaniard was never really a concern.

Sordo meanwhile eventually took the final place on the rostrum. He blamed a poor tyre choice for his failure to match the 'big' two on Friday afternoon and then he suffered from grip problems on Saturday.

Although he found his feet a bit more in SS10, 11 and 12 by then it was all a bit late.

He did try to keep the pressure on Gronholm though on the final day, winning three of the four stages and cutting the gap from 30 seconds to around 20 at the finish.

Further down the order, Stobart Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala took a strong fourth, despite coming under late pressure from Petter Solberg, who reduced the margin to less than 4 seconds following the penultimate test.

Jari though went third quickest in the final stage and eventually beat the Norwegian by 11.6 seconds.

Petter blamed 'a massive vibration' in the final stage for his inability to match Latvala but despite that it was a reasonably positive event for the 2003 world champion. Once again he led the Subaru charge and in total he set 11 top five times, finishing more than a minute up on Chris Atkinson, who was sixth in the #2 SWRT-run Impreza WRC.

Skoda privateer, Jan Kopecky put in a very solid and consistent performance to take seventh in his Fabia WRC. The Czech complained that he was down on power compared to his main rivals, but kept plugging away and was pleased to pick up another two points, especially as he had crashed out in Spain last weekend.

Xavier Pons took the final drivers' point in the 'third' SWRT entry, slipping behind Kopecky on the third day after engine problems in SS13, when he was over 3 minutes off the pace.

Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg and Dani Sola rounded out the top ten, the latter taking the Group N victory in his Peugeot 207 Super 2000, more than a minute up on Brice Tirabassi, who was also in a Peugeot 207 and who finished second in the class.

Sandwiched between the two Peugeots was 2006 Fiesta Sporting Trophy International champion, Alessandro Bettega.

Bettega showed great pace on his debut outing in a World Rally Car and would have finished higher were it not for an off on day 1. He re-started under the SupeRally on Saturday and once again set some impressive times. In total he set eight top ten stage times.

Of the other works drivers' Mikko Hirvonen snatched the final manufacturers' point in the very last stage, when he overhauled OMV Kronos Citroen's Manfred Stohl.

Mikko crashed out on SS3 on Friday and after that was always going to struggle to get a decent result. He eventually finished in 13th.

Stohl also had a problematic event, struggling to re-gain his confidence after his off in Spain. The Austrian was running just outside the top ten until fuel pressure problems in SS11 cost him over 10 minutes.

At least he finished though, his team-mate, Francois Duval was not so fortunate. Duval looked well set to take fourth until he started to suffer from brake and gearbox problems in the final two stages on Saturday. Although he completed both tests he had to retire on the road section back to service. He did not re-start on Sunday.

Stobart Ford's Matthew Wilson also failed to get to the end after he lost drive in the penultimate stage. He had been running tenth.

As for Nicolas Bernardi, who was giving the new Suzuki SX4 WRC car its first outing in the WRC, he got to the end, albeit having had to SupeRally twice. He was classified in 31st place.

In the FIA Junior World Rally Championship category, Martin Prokop took the victory in his Citroen C2 S1600, 12.5 seconds up on Jozef Beres.

Yoann Bonato completed the JRC podium, on his first outing with a Citroen C2 S1600. The Frenchman was extremely impressive and set the pace in the Junior class in every single test on Saturday. He also won another two stages on Sunday.

Per-Gunnar Andersson and Arnaud Augoyard completed the JRC top five, the former doing more than enough to take the Junior crown.

P-G had been locked in a fierce battle with his Suzuki team-mate, Urmo Aava for the JRC title, but when the Estonian crashed out on SS8 on day 2 while leading, the pendulum swung firmly in the Swede's favour.

The WRC now takes a short break, before continuing at the end of the month in Japan.


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