Having been among those outspoken about the WRC's decision to run gravel-spec tyres throughout the mixed surface Rally Cyprus at the weekend, world champion Sebastien Loeb has admitted that Pirelli did a good job of providing suitable rubber for the event.
The Citroen driver once again underlined his dominance of the sport by claiming an historic 50th WRC victory on the event, maintaining his 100 per cent start to the defence of his fifth world crown, and is now a massive 20 victories clear of former record holder Marcus Gronholm, and 24 ahead of Carlos Sainz, whose ascent to 26 wins was seen as a major landmark not so long ago.
Loeb's position within the sport ensures that his views are at least heeded, and he was critical of the decision to supply only one kind of tyre for Cyprus, which was the first mixed surface event to feature on the WRC calendar since 1996. With the first day run on asphalt and the remaining two on gravel, the latter got the nod when it came to saving costs, with Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres the choice for all three so that competitors did not have to bring differently-sized wheels and brakes to the event.
Despite his qualms, Loeb took the lead from the very first stage, and held it through to the end of the rally, claiming his historic half-century and extending his lead in the drivers' championship over Mikko Hirvonen, who finished second on the road. Although the first day was run on asphalt, the stages soon began to resemble a gravel rally as the leading cars pulled rocks and sharp stones onto the road whilst cutting the corners. The remaining days were then complicated by heavy rain that fell on Friday night, reducing Saturday's morning stages, in particular, to a muddy quagmire - to the extent that the Ford mechanics scraped off 95kg of mud from Hirvonen's car at midday service!
''The conditions were really slippery - it was hard to keep the car on the road on Saturday,'' Loeb reported, ''Under the very difficult circumstances, the tyres did a good job. Obviously, it was not ideal to be driving asphalt stages on gravel tyres during Friday but, in the end, there was more grip than I thought. I'm delighted to have got to the end of the rally safely.''
Cyprus was also a round of the Junior World Rally Championship and Production Car World Rally Championship, both exclusively supplied by Pirelli. Unlike the senior class, the Junior cars were allowed to run asphalt tyres on the opening day, with Citroen driver Martin Prokop underlining the strength and reliability of both types of rubber by leading from the off. Skoda's Patrik Sandell claimed the PWRC category on the penultimate stage after his main rival ran into gearbox problems.
''This event was one of the most technically complex that we faced all year, and our task was not helped by the rain that fell on Monday, turning the stages into a skating rink,'' Pirelli rally manager Mario Isola reflected, ''Despite the inevitable compromise that we faced on Friday, and the tricky conditions on the remaining two days, we are very pleased with the performance of our tyres, which have allowed Loeb to claim this landmark victory.
''In particular, I'm delighted that our rubber has overcome the challenge of what are definitely some of the sharpest rocks we will face all year. None of the leading runners encountered any punctures, which emphasises the strength and quality of our products.''