2011 World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Loeb snatched the early psychological advantage ahead of this weekend's Acropolis Rally in Greece, by comfortably pacing Thursday's shakedown run – and then hinting that he might be prepared to adopt a conservative approach over the next few days.
Despite overnight rain having rendered the going somewhat muddy, the surface conditions rapidly improved as the temperature rose and the road dried out, and Loeb wound up seven tenths of a second faster than fellow Citroën DS3 WRC driver Petter Solberg over the 3.1-kilometre shakedown stage to the east of the Loutraki service park.
“Like every rally, I hope to be able to fight for victory,” the Frenchman told the official WRC website, “but for sure it's more important to score some points. I'm in a good position in the championship, and it's important not to lose too much. For the rest, we will see.
“It's a rough rally, difficult for the tyres and suspension, and maybe the hardest rally of the season for the cars. We have to take care a bit in some places, but when you are fighting for seconds, you can't lose too much. What we saw on the recce is that it will be a disadvantage to be first on-the-road, but now it has been raining since the recce I don't know for tomorrow.”
A change of suspension dampers saw former World Rally Champion Solberg set his best effort on his fifth and final run through the stage, with Mikko Hirvonen placing third for the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, six tenths further in arrears again.
Loeb's Citroën team-mate, compatriot and namesake Sébastien Ogier was fourth – 2.3 seconds adrift of the benchmark – with Henning Solberg fifth, the Norwegian rejoining the fray after missing Argentina and experimenting with the set-up of his Ford Fiesta RS WRC over eight runs. Next up was fellow WRC returnee and former F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, last seen on Rally Jordan back in mid-April.
Evgeny Novikov ended up seventh ahead of the second factory Ford Fiesta of Jari-Matti Latvala, with Federico Villagra and Mads Østberg completing the top ten. MINI John Cooper Works WRC ace Armindo Araújo was forced to stop with broken front suspension, whilst local hero Lambros Athanassoulas was able to try out his Team Greece-entered Ford Fiesta RS WRC in anger for the first time, remarking: “We made adjustments to the rear suspension. I was feeling confident, but we were losing a lot of time because I am still learning the car.”
The truly competitive Acropolis Rally action will get underway with the first six of 18 special stages on Friday.
Acropolis Rally Shakedown Times:
1. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 2mins 15.5secs
2. Petter Solberg
PSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC 2mins 16.2secs
3. Mikko Hirvonen
Ford Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC 2mins 16.8secs
4. Sebastien Ogier
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 2mins 17.8secs
5. Henning Solberg
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC 2mins 18.0secs
6. Kimi Raikkonen
ICE1 Racing Citroen DS3 WRC 2mins 18.6secs
7. Evgeny Novikov
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC 2mins 18.6secs
8. Jari-Matti Latvala
Ford Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC 2mins 19.0secs
9. Federico Villagra
Munchis Ford Fiesta RS WRC 2mins 19.1secs
10. Mads Ostberg
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC 2mins 19.2secs