Citroen setbacks seal Peugeot one-two
25 March 2001
Maximum points for Peugeot on the tarmac of Catalunya have given a welcome kick-start to the defending champions' 2001 campaign. Despite leading in Monte Carlo, Sweden and Portugal, their year got off to a worryingly lean start, but today's result saw them go straight into third position in the Manufacturers' classification.
Although the first two days of the Spanish round were marked by the dominating speed of newcomers Citroën, Didier Auriol and Gilles Panizzi kept on the pressure throughout and were rewarded with first and second places when pacesetter Philippe Bugalski lost time with clutch problems on his new Xsara WRC on the final morning.
Today's result comes as a reassuring relief not only for Peugeot but also for Auriol. After a barren period with an uncompetitive Seat in 2000, the Frenchman's most recent win before Friday's start dated back to the 1999 China Rally. And the one before that was here in Catalunya three years ago.
Both were achieved at the wheel of a Toyota-Michelin. For the record, the former World Champion's win this weekend takes his personal tally to 20 world class wins, equalling in the process the scores of Markku Alen and Colin McRae. Only Juha Kankkunen (23), Carlos Sainz (23) and Tommi Mäkinen (22) can claim better.
The maiden WRC outing of the Xsara couldn't have got off to a better start when Jesus Puras and Philippe Bugalski ended Day 1 in first and second positions respectively. The Citroën pair swapped places the following morning but nothing looked like troubling their outstanding display… until the Spaniard was stopped with terminal fuel pressure problems on the road section after Saturday's final test.
But the French firm was still in front with Bugalski going into the last leg and, on the day's opening stage (SS13), the Frenchman extended his cushion over the chasing Auriol to a seemingly comfortable 33 seconds. On the following test however, the Citroën driver reported a problem with his clutch's hydraulics, before a two-minute penalty for a delayed start on SS15 dropped him to fourth, handing control to his Peugeot rivals.
While all this was going on, Mitsubishi's Tommi Mäkinen made it another all-Michelin podium in Catalunya. The Finn had a trouble-free run today and, despite moving up to third as Bugalski's penalty was imposed, Makinen simply ran out kilometres to mount an assault on second-placed Gilles Panizzi.
Top stage times nevertheless underline the potency of the revised Lancer Evolution on asphalt, and the team can leave Spain satisfied with its performance on what has been four differing surfaces so far this season.
''Finally the result was alright for us,'' commented Tommi. ''I'm a little bit disappointed we couldn't find the perfect speed of the cars in front, and we have to work to improve the speed and also ourselves. I'm very happy to have increased my lead in the championship on the last Tarmac rally with this car. We'll see what the new one in Sanremo brings.''
Meanwhile, teammate Freddy Loix produced what many are describing as his best ever drive since joining the Japanese manufacturer in 1999.
On his way to 5th overall, the Belgian's stage times were frequently on a par with, and sometimes even topped those of his illustrious teammate. Only temporary handling problems on Day 2 – traced back to a centre differential problem – prevented him from finishing even closer to the four-times World Champion.
''It's been a very good rally for me this time,'' confirmed Freddy. ''The start was good, the second day we had some small problems, but today we attacked and took Carlos and Francois. The next rallies are on gravel and we know our car is quicker than the cars in front on that surface, so hopefully things are looking quite good.''
Adding to their comments, Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart team manager George Donaldson said: ''Both drivers have performed superbly amid very strong competition and it is good to have both crews in the points. We have plenty to be pleased about, but that's not to say we can rest on our laurels - we've still got work to do.''
In contrast to its winning form on the Spanish round twelve months ago running on Michelin tyres, the Ford Focus never looked like mixing it with the front-runners.
After fuel pressure problems eliminated last year's winner Colin McRae on Day 1, Sainz, Delecour and Freddy Loix were involved in a superb fight for fifth and positions changed with each stage this morning as a handful of seconds covered the trio.
Loix grabbed the initiative on the first, Sainz regained the advantage on the next and Loix moved ahead again by the midpoint of the leg when just 5.4sec split the three.
During the afternoon Madrid-based Sainz was unable to hold Loix and settled for sixth. ''It's not been an easy weekend but I was pushing hard this morning and a point was more than we thought we'd achieve after our first day difficulties,'' he said. ''Before the rally I said a finish in the points would be a good result and I was proved right.
''We've learned much on our first asphalt rally with Pirelli and we know we have plenty of work to do. We lost a little ground to Tommi in the championship so it's important we win a rally because then we gain on everyone. It's difficult here in Spain because everyone expects so much. I'm looking forward to a gravel rally now,'' he added.
Delecour's hopes of a points-scoring finish ended when he was penalised 10 seconds for a jump start on the third stage today. ''The car is a little difficult to get moving and I simply let the clutch up too early and broke the timing beam,'' he explained. ''It was disappointing to end like that after such a good fight. It's been a difficult rally. Our car didn't feel bad but we couldn't match the others here and I think we need to work closely with Pirelli to make improvements for the next asphalt rally later in the season.''
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said: ''Everyone felt so confident before the rally but unfortunately we weren't strong enough to reach the podium. Having said that, both Carlos and François maintained their 100 percent finishing record and we have from now until the Sanremo Rally in October to find a way of getting back onto the podium on asphalt.''
The Subaru camp has even less to shout about with Petter Solberg crashing out on Day 1 and Markko Martin going OTL after a prolonged gearbox change on Day 3. The make's only finisher was Richard Burns but irregular stage times relegated the British driver to a disappointing eigth overall.
Driving a Kronos-run Peugeot 206 WRC-Michelin, Frenchman Simon Jean-Joseph was the best placed privateer at the finish in ninth position, one slot clear of Skoda-Michelin's Bruno Thiry whose consistent run bagged tenth at the finish.
Throughout the three-day event, Thiry had been locked in a thrilling three-way battle with the two factory run Hyundai Accents driven by Piero Liatti and Alister McRae. The Skoda driver always held the upper hand finally finishing 26.7 seconds in front of McRae.
Liatti had started Sunday's final leg just 12 seconds behind the Octavia, but the Italian's hopes of catching Thiry faded – along with the brakes on his Hyundai – at the end of stage 13.
''Of course I'm delighted to have finished my first true Tarmac rally for the team with a top ten result,'' says the 38-year-old Thiry. ''We have been keeping a close watch on the Hyundais – you need some competition to keep you focussed. We did lose a little time when the ATS anti-puncture mousse in the tyres caused a bad vibration during a couple stages on Saturday but otherwise the car and the Michelins have worked perfectly right from the start.
“To help us get the best out of the softer compound tyres on the longer stages, we have made some small improvements to the chassis during the rally and I'm sure these lessons learned will be of great benefit to the team in the future as we push ahead with our on-going development programme. The car now handles really well and clearly it has great potential once we have found some more horsepower from the engine ''
“Taking into account the high quality entry that included no fewer than seven top class manufacturer teams – many of these each fielding three factory cars – it was always our objective to achieve a top ten finish here in Spain, so I'm pleased that we have met our target,” added Pavel Janeba, Skoda Motorsport team manager.
“Moreover, when you compare our stage times on this year's rally to those we set 12 months ago here in Catalunya, it's clear that we have made some significant progress towards the front. However, it's equally evident that we still need to make some more strides forward before we can start to challenge the leaders consistently on rallies like this on dry asphalt.”
After their heroics in Monte Carlo, Armin Schwarz and Manfred Hiemer were aiming for another strong asphalt showing in Spain and the dynamic German duo made an encouraging start. At the end of the opening 101km leg Schwarz was hot on the heels of Thiry heels in a solid 12th place; however a small problem with the power steering system forced him to retire his Octavia WRC from the Iberian event early on Saturday morning.
''It's a bit of a mystery as we have never experienced this kind of problem before,'' said Schwarz. “Although we would have preferred more tricky conditions, our performance on the first day was well up to expectations. We were less than a second per kilometre slower than the leaders and that's a tribute to the Octavia's well-balanced chassis. If all goes well in next month's testing, we should have an improved engine with more power before the next round in Argentina.”
After the recent debut of the latest evolution Accent WRC in muddy Portugal, Hyundai continued the new car's development with its first outing on tarmac. Although Piero Liatti failed to finish because of brake problems, Alister McRae took his car to 11th overall.
Peugeot's Marcus Grönholm was another WRC regular not to reach the finish. The Finn was lying third overall when he swiped a concrete post and ripped off his rear left wheel on SS5.
Finally, a word about the inaugural round of the brand new FIA Super 1600 Championship which was won by Frenchman Sébastien Loeb driving a Citroën Saxo-Michelin. However, the combination of gruelling conditions and the fierce competition in this exciting formula whittled the original entry of twenty-two cars down to just seven survivors!