Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has paid tribute to his principal rivals following the Acropolis Rally and has admitted he had to 'fight really hard' to win.
Loeb eventually came through to claim his fourth victory of the season by 40 seconds, but, while he did hold the lead from SS4, he never got to build up much of a cushion on days one and two and he came under a lot of pressure from the Fords, having to fend off the challenge from Jari-Matti Latvala and then Petter Solberg, when the Finn hit trouble. Although Solberg's bid ended in the opening stage on Sunday after he knocked a wheel off, the drama didn't end there, as Loeb had to stop and change a puncture on the final loop.
“This rally was so long and difficult. We had some fortune in the morning, but in general we had to fight really hard,” Loeb reflected. “It was really good. I tried to always keep my rhythm and do what I felt. I tried to manage the car and the tyres. I believe that everybody has done a great rally, Mikko [Hirvonen – my team-mate], Petter and Jari Matti.
“It was a really tough battle. We are used to this being more of an endurance test. But it was flat-out for two days - and one stage. We had big fight with Jari-Matti - at first we were four [drivers fighting], then it was more intense. Then Jari-Matti made his mistake and Petter made some pressure in the mud. Petter is like this, when the condition is tough, he can go like crazy and then today he made a mistake.
“Daniel [Elena – my co-driver] just said it was 80 per cent yesterday, but it wasn't – it was flat-out, just not in the bad places where it was too hard for the car and the tyres, and there were not a lot of places like that. The car is really strong however, and so are the tyres. Every stage was 98 per cent!”
As for his scare on the final loop, when he had to change one of his tyres in the second run through Agii Theodori, Loeb added that it wasn't a big problem: “It was just to put a little pressure on the team; they were confident so this was just to wake them up!” he joked. “There was nothing special. In a right-hander there was a stone in the middle of the road, the first pass it was not too high, but the second time we slid over the stone with less gravel around it. It broke my tyre, after one kilometre I decided to stop and change it.
“Daniel told me to continue, but I said no. I remember in 2006, I had a puncture here and I finished the stage on the brake disc, everything was destroyed. At the end of the stage I couldn't put a wheel on the car, we lost everything. I thought I had a 1m50s lead and this was enough to change the wheel. Everything went well and, in the end, our lead didn't come under threat.”
So is this the toughest rally?
“Every rally is a challenge, but this one is different. It is so demanding on the car and tyres. I am sure we will have some fights like this in the future.
“It's a rally: when you win it, you feel really happy and satisfied, but anything can happen when you start,” concluded the Frenchman, who as well as taking the victory, also won the Power Stage too, giving him the maximum 28 point haul from the weekend and allowing him to extend his lead in the drivers' championship.