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Ireland - leg 3: Irish win puts Loeb back on top

18 November 2007

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb re-took the advantage in the battle for the 2007 drivers' title this weekend, when he came through to win the inaugural Rally Ireland, the penultimate round in the 2007 FIA World Rally Championship.

Loeb led the event practically throughout in his C4 WRC, not that it was as easy a win as that would suggest. Indeed conditions were pretty treacherous throughout and with the asphalt stages often covered in mud, were extremely slippery.

Seb's chief championship rival, Marcus Gronholm was the biggest casualty and he went out on day 1 in SS4.

Gronholm, who won the Stormont Super Special on Thursday evening, had been running third overall, just 4 seconds off the lead, when he lost control of his Focus RS WRC car under braking for a corner in Lough Gill 1 and crashed heavily into a stone wall.

Although Gronholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen were taken to Sligo General Hospital by ambulance, they were soon released and given the all-clear.

Loeb was then perfectly placed to take advantage, although he himself had problems early on when he suffered a mechanical problem en-route to the 'first' proper stage.

The Frenchman noticed the issue on the road section to SS2. However despite a defective rear damper, Seb still set the fastest time through the 11.48 kilometre Geevagh 1 test and was then second quickest in SS3 and SS4, to return to the first service of the day just 2.2 seconds off his team-mate, Daniel Sordo, who at that point led.

With his C4 fixed though in service, Loeb bounced back in the middle loop, retaking the lead in second run through Geevagh. Following that the Frenchman extended his margin further in SS6 and although he lost out to Sordo in SS7, he returned to service B with a 6.8 second cushion.

The final loop was again all about Loeb and Sordo, and while Sordo cut the gap to just 3 seconds following SS9, Seb finished the day with a flourish and took the margin back to just over 10 seconds.

On day 2, Seb set the marker from the off and even though conditions were still tough, with rain falling during SS11, SS12 and SS13, the Frenchman was in a class of his own, winning all three to increase his lead five-fold.

Seb opted to pace himself a bit more in the afternoon, on the repeat runs, and was 'only' third fastest in SS14, 2.5 seconds off Chris Atkinson. He won the next test though – to take his fourth stage win of the day and his ninth of the event, before settling for the fifth best time in SS16, the last stage of the day, 6.3 seconds behind Jari-Matti Latvala.

Loeb thus took a 59.3 second advantage into the third leg, easing off through the final four stages and eventually taking the victory by just under a minute.

His maximum score means he re-takes the lead in the drivers' championship – having lost it at the end of May when he crashed out in Sardinia. Loeb is now 6 points up Gronholm, with just one event, the Wales Rally GB to go in two weeks time.

Sordo for his part put in a good drive in the sister C4 WRC winning five stages on the opening day in order to give the French manufacturer a clean sweep.

In view of the situation in the drivers' championship, he was never going to be allowed to challenge Loeb, but he was lucky to get away with a small off on Saturday when he went off the road in SS12 and got stuck on a concrete wall.

The Spaniard was helped back on again by some spectators and he continued on his way, despite slightly damaging the bodywork on his C4. That incident cost him around 30 seconds, but with a good margin over his nearest rival in P3, didn't actually make much difference.

Stobart Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile took the final place on the rostrum - his best ever result in the WRC. The Finn posted twelve top three stage times during the event, including winning SS16 and SS19.

Like Sordo he had a moment on day 2 when he went off the road and into a field – losing 20 seconds, but he also managed to carry on.

Mikko Hirvonen was next up in fourth, after opting for a 'safety-first' approach in order to ensure he notched up at least three points to secure the manufacturers' championship for BP Ford.

In the end he easily did enough, taking 5 points for P4, something that guarantees the M-Sport-run outfit its second consecutive manufacturers' crown. He also won two stages on the final day, just for good measure.

Further down the order, Subaru's Petter Solberg was fifth. 'Hollywood' was slowed on day 1 with an engine misfire on the first loop, but other than that didn't really have any issues with his Impreza.

He closed in on Hirvonen on Saturday and got the gap down from 26 seconds to 12.6 seconds post-SS13, before dropping back a bit in the afternoon. He lost further ground on Sunday and eventually finished 38.1 seconds adrift.

Guy Wilks came in sixth following an impressive showing in his privately entered Impreza. The Englishman set 17 top-ten stage times in total during the event and was even second quickest on the final 'proper' stage, Donegal Bay. It is the first time he has scored 'senior' WRC points and will give him a boost ahead of Rally GB, where he will be out to try and win the Tesco 99 Octane MSA British Rally Championship.

Fellow countryman, Matthew Wilson was next up in the 'third' Stobart Ford car, to score points for the second event in succession – and the third time this year. Although he struggled at times in the end he did enough to take two more championship points.

Gareth MacHale rounded out the top eight, with Andreas Mikkelsen ninth and FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category winner, Niall McShea tenth.

McShea took the lead in the PWRC on the penultimate test when Armindo Araujo went out. McShea eventually finished 44.1 seconds up on Gabriel Pozzo.

Second place was good enough though for Pozzo to keep his PWRC title hopes alive and he now needs to win Rally GB to overhaul Toshi Arai and take the Production crown.

Nasser Al-Attiyah was third in the PWRC category, 4 minute 31 seconds off the lead, while Simone Campedelli and Stepan Vojtech completed the top five.

Mark Higgins, who led the PWRC category for much of the event, did not finish. He rolled out on the final stage on Saturday, throwing away a 30-second lead and his hopes of taking the PWRC title.

Of the rest, Henning Solberg finished 16th after going off the road on day 1 in SS8. He re-started on Saturday under the SupeRally and picked up three manufacturers' points for his efforts. Those points, combined with the 6 scored by Latvala, moves the Stobart team up to third in the manufacturers', 1 point ahead of Subaru.

Subaru's Chris Atkinson was also classified thanks to the SupeRally, despite having to sit out the final day due to an internal engine problem. He picked up two manufacturers' points as a result.

As for the retirees, in addition to Gronholm, fellow 'works' runners, Xavier Pons and Manfred Stohl both failed to get to the end.

Like Gronholm, they had offs which forced them out. Pons went out in the same test as Gronholm, SS4, while Stohl crashed out on Saturday in SS13.

A number of other notable drivers' went out too, including multiple Irish Tarmac champion, Eugene Donnelly, who was sidelined with mechanical issues on day 1, as well as Kris Meeke, Andrew Nesbitt, Gareth Jones, Ray Breen and Tim McNulty.

The FIA World Rally Championship now heads to Wales for the season finale in two weeks time, which runs from November 30 to December 2.


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