Citroen number one driver Sebastien Loeb
had to settle for fifth on Rally Japan at the weekend after an uncharacteristically rather mediocre performance.
Loeb, who had to run first on the road on the opening day and sweep away the loose gravel, finished it down in sixth, more than 50 seconds off the leader and he was not pleased.
"Sweeping doesn't fully explain why we're so far behind!" he conceded. "I don't know if it's me who's not yet in the rhythm, or if the car's setup isn't perfect. I felt I hadn't enough grip in the quick corners so it was difficult to set good times. I'm trying to push as hard as possible. I feel I'm driving well and I feel good in the car. But I see the gap increasing inexorably."
Although he did better on day two and was closer to the pace, cutting the deficit somewhat to P1 by 20 seconds ahead of the mid-day halt, he didn't do so well on the repeat loop, losing around 10 seconds in SS15, the 33.76 km Kamuycep 2 test. After that he opted to ease off and pace himself to the finish.
"It's really not my rally!" he continued on day two. "Compared to Friday we're not handicapped by being first out on the road. We're now back among the quickest, but the others are pushing like crazy as they don't have much to lose. This afternoon we lost around ten seconds in the long stage. We had some kind of impact in the steering and that affected the way the front differential worked. That doesn't have any influence on the way the rally's panning out but now I'm concentrating on bagging points."
Loeb eventually ended up in P5, gaining a place on the final day when Mikko Hirvonen
had mechanical problems. He finished 20.2 seconds up on the Finn - and 53.3 seconds off the eventual winner, Sebastien Ogier.
Despite not being in contention though, he insisted he wasn't too displeased and understandably his focus throughout was on ensuring he didn't do anything stupid to jeopardise his commanding position in the drivers' championship. Indeed while he will have to wait now until his home event in two weeks time to clinch the 2010 WRC drivers' title, he is still very much on course for that record seventh crown.
"I was never really in the running for victory but I'm happy with ten points," Loeb reflected at the finsh. "A forty-three point lead with three rallies left to go is still a fairly comfortable situation. My calculations for Rally France are pretty simple as I'll win the title if I come first whatever the positions of my rivals.
"I'd like to congratulate Sébastien [Ogier] on his victory as I can tell you that finding the right dose of speed to push hard on this kind of terrain wasn't at all obvious."
Speaking in the post-event press conference, when asked why Loeb wasn't fighting at the front this weekend, Citroen
Total team manager, Sven Smeets added: "We all know that this is not Sebastien's favourite rally. On Friday we lost too much time to fight for the lead.
"On Saturday he matched the pace of the others and made some time back, but then we said: 'Okay, let's secure some points' and this gives him the chance to do the job in France."