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Loeb on target but Makinen still a real threat

19 January 2002


Frenchman Sebastien Loeb and Finn Tommi Mäkinen are locked in battle at the front of the opening round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, the Rallye Monte Carlo, which continued today.

Reigning World Junior Champ Loeb, who hit the top of the leaderboard yesterday, extended his advantage this morning with a fastest time on the day's second stage. But as the event moved to more traditional stages, such as the famous run over the Col de Turini, Mäkinen (Rallye Monte Carlo winner for the past three years) began to close the gap between the pair once more. They entered this evening's final two stages separated by less than half a minute and although Loeb extended his lead in SS10, Makinen responded immediately in the final stage by cutting it back to 28.2 seconds.

There have been clear blue skies over the French mountains again today, but conditions on the roads themselves have ranged from dry asphalt to sheet ice and greasy frost. The tricky Alpine passes caught out a number of crews, including Skoda's Roman Kresta and Peugeot driver Harri Rovanpera. They both retired with suspension and steering damage, but Subaru's Petter Solberg, Ford's Carlos Sainz and Mitsubishi's Alister McRae were all able to continue after slight 'offs'.

The Citroen Xsara WRC of Sebastien Loeb has run without major technical problems today. Sebastien Loeb consolidated his overnight advantage on this morning's opening stage, virtually matching nearest challenger Tommi Mäkinen. And then the Frenchman charged again on SS7 - a repeat of the test where he'd done so much damage to his opposition yesterday evening. He scalped another 11s from Mäkinen to arrive at lunchtime service back in Monaco more than half a minute clear.

But the afternoon stages were not so kind to the reigning world Junior champion - Mäkinen inched closer over the Col de Turini to bring Loeb's lead down to just under 27s and although Loeb extended the advantage to 35.7 seconds after SS10, Makinen immediately cut it back on SS11 - the final of the day.

Sebastien Loeb said: ''It's been going pretty well today but this afternoon was very difficult for us. I just think that the greasy, wet conditions seem to suit one of the Pirelli tyres very well and that's been the main difference. I'm just trying to keep my concentration, not make a mistake and see what happens. Last night and this morning were good, though - I realised that I could attack at maximum in one particular stage that I drove on a French championship event quite recently, and that allowed me to build a lead.''

At Subaru Tommi Mäkinen was less than satisfied with his tyre choice on this morning's opening pair of stages, but the four-times world champion's Impreza has been reliable. Petter Solberg's example enjoyed a troublefree morning until the Norwegian slid wide on loose gravel in SS7 and hit a wall. He damaged the car's steering rack and power steering pump, and then picked up 20s of penalties after Subaru mechanics needed 22 minutes in the following service to fix the problem.

Any hopes Tommi Mäkinen had of putting young leader Sebastien Loeb under early-morning pressure were hampered when the Finn picked too soft a tyre for today's opening pair of stages. He ended up ceding a further 10s to Loeb before lunchtime service. But an inspired choice of rubber for the following two tests allowed Mäkinen to respond - a pair of fastest times this afternoon moved him back to within half a minute of the lead and situation that remained the same after SS11 (the final stage of the day).

Petter Solberg set fastest time on this morning's first stage but in the second, he slid wide on gravel and hit a wall. The Norwegian had to complete 10km with badly damaged steering and he lost almost a minute as a result.

Tommi Mäkinen said: ''We've been making some silly mistakes here. Last night's tyre choice and this morning's tyre choice should have been the other way round! We went far too soft on tyres this morning. But this afternoon was really good - we went back onto the same tyres I used earlier yesterday and they worked very well. There's still some distance to go and the Col de Turini stage is longer again tomorrow - I think we have a good chance of catching Sebastien.''

Petter Solberg added: ''I don't think I was pushing too hard on SS7. Perhaps I had too much information in my pacenotes because I just couldn't take it all in. It was really difficult with the steering. Otherwise it's been okay - I had one puncture near the end of SS9 but it didn't slow me too much. And the Pirellis are working really well in these conditions.''

The Ford Focus RS WRC02s of Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin have been reliable today, although they weren't too pleased with their choice of Pirellis for this morning's opening pair of stages. The Spaniard believed his option was too soft, while the Estonian reckoned his were too hard. Colin McRae's challenge was hampered in SS9 after his seat mounting broke and, in the service after the stage, a gearbox change cost him 10s of penalty. Then to add further misery to McRae's day engine problems in the final stage saw him drop from third overall to fifth.

Colin McRae maintained a consistent yet fast approach this morning to stay in touch with the podium positions, although he lost third to Marcus Grönholm in SS7. He claimed that back in SS8 but at the end of that test, his seat mounting broke. He had to cope with the problem throughout SS9 and spun at the Col de Turini, then got a 10s penalty and dropped back behind Grönholm again. Engine difficulties in SS11 further hampered the Brit's day and he now lies fifth behind Gronholm and Sainz.

Carlos Sainz lost time with two punctures in SS7 after he slid off at the same time as Petter Solberg and hit a wall, but the Spaniard recovered and ended leg two in third position. Markko Martin has continued to experiment with settings on his Ford Focus, but the Estonian lies outside of the top ten.

Colin McRae said: ''We're going as quickly as we want to go, without taking unnecessary risks. Sebastien Loeb knew when to attack last night and he did the same this morning, and I don't really think anyone can match him. He's got the sort of buffer now that he needs. The seat problem was annoying - it cost me more time than the spin. The engine difficulties was just the icing on the cake!''

His team-mate Carlos Sainz added: ''I chose too soft a tyre this morning and then I was caught out by the same gravely corner as Petter (Solberg). We got two punctures - I think it cost us about 15 seconds, because we had to drive on them for about 10km.''

Over at Peugeot the 206 WRCs of Marcus Grönholm, Richard Burns and Gilles Panizzi have run without major problems today, although Burns remains unsure of his car's handling as he continues to learn more about the 206 on dry asphalt.

Marcus Grönholm pushed slightly harder in this morning's second stage, and his second-fastest time was enough to move him clear of Colin McRae in third overall. But the 2000 world champion admitted to backing off too much in SS8's slippery sections - that had dropped him back down to fourth before McRae's penalisation. He ended the day fourth though dispite McRae's engine problems as Carlos Sainz pulled out the stops to leap-frog them both in SS11.

Richard Burns, meanwhile, benefited from Petter Solberg's accident to move into sixth by lunchtime. The reigning world champion remains uncertain about his 206 WRC's handling, though, and he is still uncomfortable with his seating position. Gilles Panizzi set a number of fast times this morning, despite feeling that the reversed road positions meant he was drying the road for rivals running further down the order. He has moved into the top ten today, though - he entered SS11 in eighth overall. Peugeot's fourth regular driver, Harri Rovanpera, crashed out of the event in SS7 when he clipped a wall and broke his car's steering.

Marcus Grönholm said: ''I'm quite happy with how things are going. We've been able to push a bit harder when we have the second runs through the stage. I was just too cautious in the slippery stuff in SS8, though - I wasn't too satisfied with my own performance there.''

Richard Burns noted: ''I've been changing a few things in the suspension to try to get more confidence in the car. At the moment, I can't commit mid-corner to putting the power on. It still feels nervous under me. I feel like I'm reacting to the car instead of it doing what I want it to. It's more about suspension than transmission, so we're working on things. We've tried to adjust the anti-roll bar but I'm beginning to think it's more fundamental than that - perhaps something that we won't find on this rally.''

Gilles Panizzi added: ''I'm much happier with the car's suspension settings today than I was yesterday, but I don't think our position on the road is helping us. I think that when the roads were damp, we're actually making a dry line for the guys behind.''

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution WRC of Alister McRae has been reliable today. François Delecour's example suffered from overheating brakes on this morning's opening pair of stages, though, after a water pump failed. He then hit centre differential problems in SS8 and (more seriously) in SS9.

Alister McRae and François Delecour have continued to experiment with suspension and damper settings, as they try to make the Lancer Evolution's handling more progressive. Despite losing time with brake and then differential problems, Delecour held ninth overall as the crews completed the final stages of the day.

McRae has been encouraged by his ability to match Delecour this afternoon - the Scot held 11th overall as he started SS8 - disaster struck though in SS11 when he spun and hit a wall. As a result he dropped to 14th.

François Delecour said: ''I can feel a good potential in the car, but we still need to work more on the set-up. We're moving more towards a Corsica-style of setting as the roads are more dry. This morning I had a problem with the brakes - with new pads, they'd be terrific for the first few kilometres and then they'd fade. Then the differential had some problems and I spun because of that. I know we can go quicker.''

Alister McRae added: ''We've been trying to make the front end of the car behave itself over the bumpy stuff and we're heading in the right direction, but we've started to get a bit of understeer as well so we need to find a solution there too.''

At Skoda Kenneth Eriksson's and Toni Gardemeister's Octavias have not hit any significant mechanical problems today, although Gardemeister lost power when he hit his car off a wall in SS7 and flattened its exhaust. Roman Kresta had to retire his car with suspension damage after he slid off in the same stage.

Skoda's third driver Roman Kresta hit problems on this morning's second stage. The young Czech driver slid straight on at a hairpin, hitting a wall and damaging his Octavia's suspension beyond repair. The resulting debris almost caught out Gardemeister, who heard ominous noises from his car's transmission after he ran over some rocks. He was already in trouble by that point anyway, having slid wide at a hairpin and flattened his exhaust. The damage cost him power for around half of SS7. Both Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson experimented with harder tyres in SS8 and SS9 to their cost - they failed to get heat into the rubber in the slippery conditions and lost time as a result. Gardemeister still held 10th after today's final two stages, though. Eriksson was 13th.

Toni Gardemeister said: ''On SS7 I just went too quickly into a hairpin and we slid the back of the car against something. The exhaust was damaged and we had no power at all until the finish. It was frustrating because the first stage this morning had been okay. But we're just trying to keep the same pace and experiment with the settings.''

Kenneth Eriksson added: ''It's been going okay but the Octavia does feel like a bigger car than the Hyundai that I used over the last couple of years. The hard tyres were a disaster - I couldn't get any heat into them at all. But I didn't know whether they'd work or not so I had to experiment.''

Of the other entries Italian Gianluigi Galli continued to lead the FIA Junior World Rally Championship section in his Fiat Punto until SS10 when he crashed out. Closest rival François Duval (Ford Puma) then took over the lead with Nicola Caldani (Peugeot 206 XS) second and Roger Feghali (Ford Puma) third. Last night's third-placed driver, Austrian David Doppelreiter lost time with gearbox problems today.


Rally statistics:

Starters:
35 cars, all Gr. A, re-started the rally

Retirements:
Kresta (CZ), Rovanpera (FIN) & 1 other driver, before SS10.

Today - Saturday 19 January:
Leg 2 started from Monaco at 08h13 and covered 486.50km, including 131.88km on six special stages.

Tomorrow - Sunday 20 January:
Leg 3 starts from Monaco at 07h33 and covers 270.22km, including 98.80km on four special stages. The first car is expected to arrive at the finish control in Monaco at 15h02.

Weather forecast:
Remaining clear and cold


Stage by stage summary - Leg 2:

SS6 Pont de Clans-Villars Sur Var (12.08kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 44.5
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 9m 49.1
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 9m 50.0

Leaders after SS6:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 26m 57.4
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 1h 27m 32.8
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 27m 41.6

SS7 Puget Theniers-Toudon (26.76kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 17m 30.7
2. Grönholm (FIN) Peugeot 17m 35.5
3. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 17m 41.3

Leaders after SS7:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 44m 28.1
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 1h 45m 14.1
3. Grönholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 45m 24.4

SS8 Coaraze-Loda (23.05kms):
1. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 15m 56.6
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 16m 02.9
3. Sainz (E) Ford 16m 05.2

Leaders after SS8:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 00m 31.0
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 2h 01m 10.7
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 2h 01m 38.2

SS9 La Bollene-Turini-Sospel (23.47kms):
1. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 15m 58.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 06.4
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 16m 11.4

Leaders after SS9:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 16m 42.4
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 2h 17m 09.3
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 18m 06.1

SS10 Coaraze-Loda (23.05kms):
1. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 16m 08.2
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 16m 17.0
3. Sainz (E) Ford 16m 31.4

Leaders after SS10:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 32m 50.6
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 2h 33m 26.3
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 2h 34m 58.6

SS11 La Bollene-Moulinet (23.47kms):
1. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru 16m 21.4
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 16m 28.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 29.8

Leaders after SS11:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 49m 19.5
2. Mäkinen (FIN) Subaru +28.2
3. Sainz (E) Ford +2m 16.9
4. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +2m 21.4
5. C.McRae (GB) Ford +2m 52.4
6. Solberg (N) Subaru +3m 37.1
7. Burns (GB) Peugeot +3m 59.0
8. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +4m 26.5
9. Delecour (F) Mitsubishi +4m 50.0
10. Gardemeister (FIN) Skoda +5m 49.9



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