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France - day 3: Home win puts Loeb on verge

12 October 2008

Sebastien Loeb put in a fantastic performance on the Rallye de France-Tour de Corse this weekend to move within touching distance of a record fifth drivers' title - despite Ford's antics in the final loop.

Just like in Spain a week ago, Loeb utterly dominated the first leg on Friday and he romped into the lead immediately on the thirteenth round in the World Rally Championship.

Indeed he completed the opening test in 9 minutes 27.4 seconds, 4 seconds up on Mikko Hirvonen, who was 'best of the rest'. The four-time world champion then increased his advantage further in SS2 before doubling it in SS3, to return to the mid-day halt with a 14.4 second cushion.

In the afternoon, on the repeat loop, the Citroen star pushed on - 6.1 seconds up on Hirvonen in SS4 and 5.2 seconds ahead of his championship rival in SS5. With his sixth stage win in succession in Arbellara he ended leg 1 with a 32.3 second advantage.

Saturday was a case of more of the same and he was again unstoppable in his C4 WRC car, winning all but the final test of the day - when Francois Duval ended his run.

With eleven stage wins from twelve though he had already almost doubled his overnight cushion and going into the final day enjoyed a 52.4 second lead.

The final day may not have been easy, with two long tests to contend with, both run twice - including the longest of the event, but it didn't seem to have much effect on Loeb.

Indeed he won another two stages in the morning and one in the afternoon, to take his tally to 14 from 16.

It was his fourth win in as many years in Corsica and his tenth victory of the season. Seb now extends his championship lead to 14 points and with just Japan and Wales to go, Mikko Hirvonen will need a miracle to stop the Frenchman winning this year's drivers' championship.

"It's always a big honour to win here," he said. "We've had three perfect days. The car worked like a dream and we made no mistakes. Over the course of the whole rally we were quicker than our rivals and we did not take unnecessary risks. We have increased our lead in the championship a bit and everything is heading in the right direction."

The final day though was not without controversy and Mikko Hirvonen, who had been second pretty much throughout, slipped to fifth in the first test on Sunday, when he picked up a puncture.

With Petter Solberg also hitting problems in the next test though, Mikko gained a place and that left the way clear for the 'Blue Oval' to play with the final order and team boss Malcolm Wilson subsequently instructed both Duval and Jari-Matti Latvala to let Hirvonen by.

Prior to the final test, the 26.32 kilometre Pietra Rossa-Verghia stage, Duval checked into the time control early and picked up a two minute penalty, while Latvala also purposely picked up a penalty by arriving at SS16 nine minutes late. Mikko thus moved up from fourth to second and scores 8 points, as opposed to the 5 he would have got for fourth.

"It's not the way you want to get to the podium," Mikko admitted, "But in the end I understand the team's point. They want to keep the Championship alive. This is the way they want to play it, so I accept it."

Duval and Latvala both echoed that view: "My role was to help the team and so it made perfect sense for me to help Mikko here," Francois continued. "This was a tough rally and I've had to work hard for third, but that's how I like it."

"This is a fantastic result for me here and definitely my best ever on tarmac; I could have been on the podium, but the important thing is to keep Ford in with a chance of becoming champions again," Jari-Matti added. "I have had two great results in two weeks - and no-one can take that away from me."

Further down the order Petter Solberg completed the top five for Subaru - although he also lost time with a puncture on the final day, two in fact, one in SS14 and one in the final stage, which left him just 35 seconds up on his team-mate Chris Atkinson.

Atkinson had been right up with Petter and Latvala and battling for fourth until a puncture on day 2 left him out of contention.

Urmo Aava was seventh, despite problems prior to SS2, which saw him get a 1 minute penalty and drop him from 8th to 17th.

Britain's Matthew Wilson took the final drivers' point and like Aava he had to fight his way back after issues on day 1, including an off in SS3.

Of the rest Mads Ostberg and Barry Clark came ninth and tenth respectively, followed by Andreas Mikkelsen, Khalid Al-Qassimi and Toni Gardemeister - the latter picking up the final manufacturers' point for Suzuki on the anniversary of the SX4 WRC's first outing in the WRC.

Per-Gunnar Andersson did not fare so well in the other SX4 WRC and finished under the SupeRally in 17th after going out in SS11. Conrad Rautenbach, Henning Solberg and Gareth Jones filled the three spaces between the Suzuki men.

Citroen's Dani Sordo and Subaru 'third' driver Brice Tirabasi were the two major retirements - the former crashed out on day 1 in SS3, while Tirabassi was forced out on the final day with mechanical problems.

In the Junior World Rally Championship category, Martin Prokop came through to take his third win of the season. The Czech led for most of the event and while he did lose the lead to 'wild card' runner Pierre Campana in the final stage on day 1, he re-took the position on Saturday morning. After that he was never really threatened.

Campana ended up taking the final spot on the podium, having slipped behind 2008 J-WRC champion, Sebastien Ogier in the last test.

Having thrown away an almost certain victory in Spain, Ogier opted for a cautious approach this weekend and drove with his head to make sure he picked up sufficient points to take the Junior title. In the end he did so with ease.

Of the other J-WRC runners Pierre Marche was fourth, followed by Aaron Burkart in fifth, Patrik Sandell in sixth and Florian Niegel in seventh. Kevin Abbring took the final J-WRC point in eighth.

The World Rally Championship now continues in two weeks time when the series returns to gravel for the penultimate event, the Rally Japan. The event, which runs from October 30 to November 2, is again based on the country's northernmost island of Hokkaido – but it has a new base in Sapporo and an entirely new route.

Despite Ford's tactics in Corsica, Japan is likely to be an historic event, as Loeb has an extremely good chance of taking that record fifth title in the 'Land of the Rising Sun'...


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