Sebastien Loeb denies Citroen employed tactics to ensure they wouldn't start first on the road for the second leg of the Rally New Zealand after the championship leader suffered start motor problems on SS6.
Loeb had been on a charge on the second loop of stages, winning SS4 and SS5 to move to within less than a second of early leader and title rival Mikko Hirvonen.
However, while Loeb would have taken the lead after claiming the fastest time on SS6 too, a failure to start on time at the beginning of the stage cost him 30secs in penalties. Forcing Hirvonen to lose ground by being first out on stage instead, it also means Loeb now heads into the second day 27.8secs behind Hirvonen and, crucially, second on the road, a fact that could prove massively beneficial over the longer second leg.
“I don't know what was wrong, whether it was Citroen playing tactics...” Hirvonen speculated. “I was forced to go first onto the stage and just went flat out and, okay, there was nothing much else I could do.”
Nonetheless, while Hirvonen and Ford has questioned whether or not tactics came into play, Loeb brushed the suggestions off by insisting it was a genuine problem, even if he admits it was a positive thing for once.
“It was a problem, but for one time it went in a good way, to help me,” Loeb countered. “When we tried to start the engine it didn't work and we were just 30 seconds away to check in and so we had to find a solution and do what we could, but it didn't work. So we had to try and push the car and it was reverse downhill, so we tried this way and finally we started the engine and we got going. So okay, we are not so bad at the moment, second on the road but 28 seconds behind Mikko, that's a big gap I think. But we will see.”
Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson was similarly wary, but seemed happy to joke that the Citroen starter motor was simply not as reliable as the Ford one.
“Well we didn't need to do any tactics and maybe Citroen need to get a Ford starter motor, maybe they'll start a bit quicker!!
As Citroen boss Olivier Quesnel points out though, any tactical move would have seen Dani Sordo come ahead of Loeb on the running order.
“We lost time, now 27 seconds behind Hirvonen. I think it's a lot. If it was tactical, I think
Dani Sordo would be before Sebastien Loeb and not behind him.”