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Loeb takes leg one honours in Italy

3 October 2003


Citroen's Sebastien Loeb continued his good run of form in the FIA World Rally Championship, leading the Rallye Sanremo at the end of the opening leg.

The Frenchman was quickest out of the blocks this morning, blasting his Citroen Xsara WRC into a 16-second lead at the end of an occasionally fog-bound opening loop of stages north-west of the rally's host town.

He dropped time to Ford's Markko Martin on the middle two stages, but was back at the top of the timesheets over stages five and six – a repeat of the first two this morning – to end the leg with a 32.4-second cushion over Martin.

The Ford driver's efforts were not helped by his car scooping leaves into the air intake on the first time through Perinaldo and Ceppo. The engine on his Focus started to overheat, running on safe mode for half of each test. Marcus Gronholm is third overnight, despite brake trouble on his Peugeot 206 WRC.

Tomorrow starts with the first of two runs through the 52-kilometre Teglia stage, which crews estimate will take around 36 minutes in good weather. These two stages [seven and ten] are likely to have a big impact on the rally.

The Citroen Xsara WRCs of Loeb and Colin McRae ran without fault today though, while Carlos Sainz was not happy with the brakes on his car.

Loeb was fastest on four of the day's six stages and enjoyed a trouble-free opening leg aboard his Xsara. Sainz held fourth place overnight. The Spaniard reported a lack of feeling on the brakes aboard his Xsara, otherwise his car ran without any serious mechanical trouble. McRae rounded out the trio of official Citroens in seventh. The Scotsman had taken a compound of Michelin too soft for the final loop of stages, feeling the tyres were moving around towards the end of the longer of the two stages.

"There's no way that we can be lifting off anywhere, Martin is going very well – he's not far behind," said Loeb. "We have had to take some chances today, on the second stage we hit a wall with the right-rear of the car when we were braked too late for a corner."

Sainz added: "I am still taking medication, but I feel okay today. The car is also okay, but the brakes aren't quite right. I don't seem to be getting the right feeling from the pedal. The team is going to change the discs and master cylinder at the last service tonight, so hopefully this should solve the problem. I have to say I am happy to be here after the way I felt earlier in the week."

McRae noted: "This morning I wasn't pushing so hard. I could see the places where Sebastien was taking the time, he's going very well. The car is fine, no problems. It's been a very average day today, nothing to report really."

Both Ford Focus RS WRC03s ran without fault through the opening leg, while Mikko Hirvonen retired on the 2002-specification Focus after the third stage with a broken cambelt.

Francois Duval made the fastest start from the Ford camp, moving into second position on the opening stage. The Belgian slipped back over the second loop of stages, but was still in touch with the leaders. Martin suffered a strange problem this morning, as the leaves on the road were scooped up into the air intake of his Focus, starving the engine of air and causing it to overheat and lapse into a safe mode. The team attempted to fix the problem by drilling holes in the lip of the front spoiler to drop the leaves out. It wasn't as bad on the second loop of stages, but the Estonian said it was still causing the temperature to rise.

Hirvonen was happy after the first loop of stages, holding 12th overall. It all came to nought for the young Finn on the next test, however, when he was forced into retirement with a broken cambelt.

Martin said: "I don't know why this is happening with the leaves, but it is very frustrating. When there's no power from the engine for half of the first stage and half of the second one, then it becomes a bit of a Sunday drive – it's actually quite dangerous because the anti-lag system doesn't work which stops the engine responding so well."

Duval commented: "I was pushing quite hard this morning, everything was going well. We're running with new notes for this event and they were very good. On the fourth stage I hit the back wheel quite hard, the vibration was getting so bad I thought the wheel might actually come off."

Hirvonen added: "It is really disappointing. This was an event we had done last year and one which I had an idea of what to expect. The two stages this morning were okay. I hit a wall under braking, but the car wasn't damaged and looking at our times we weren't that far away from drivers like Tommi Makinen – which was great. Then what I thought was an electrical problem turned out to be something much more serious and we retired."

At Peugeot Gronholm's 206 WRC suffered brake problems through the first day, while Richard Burns and Gilles Panizzi struggled to find the right set-up for the car, although the Frenchman was more satisfied with his 206 after the third and fourth stages.

Gronholm led the Peugeot attack on the opening leg, although the reigning world champion admitted he wasn't too happy with his driving or with the car's brakes.

Panizzi and Burns were demoralised when they arrived at second service this morning, neither could put their finger on the precise nature of the problem – but both knew the car could have been better. Panizzi eventually went back to last year's set-up and felt that was an improvement – his times certainly improved – while Burns stiffened his suspension and also felt an improvement.

Gronholm said: "In the fog this morning I was using my left foot on the brake quite a lot, it was a bit more like gravel driving – because I wasn't sure all of the time where the road was going. The brakes would then get too hot, the pedal would go long and I have to then come off the brakes for a while. It takes away the confidence and makes it impossible to brake late. All the time I am having these problems."

Burns added: "This morning really wasn't good. I had no confidence in the car at all, everything seemed to be happening too quickly. I wasn't going at the corners, the corners were coming right at me. I wasn't surprised to see how much time we lost on the longer stage – we just weren't in the rally then. The second loop were better, but then I know those stages a bit more. On the whole things are better than when we started this morning, but I'm not where I want to be."

Panizzi said: "The car was really terrible this morning, I couldn't drive it at all. It was everywhere in the fast corners, not good. Last year's set-up is helping, but I am not happy with the way this has gone. I am driving absolutely flat out now, there is nothing left in me."

Over at Subaru Petter Solberg retired his Impreza WRC2003 from eighth place one kilometre out of service, with a fuel problem. Tommi Makinen suffered no mechanical problems.

Solberg's day started badly when the right-front top mount on the suspension broke. The middle loop of stages went without problem as did the next two – until he was on the road section back to service in Imperia north of Sanremo. The car stopped with a fuel problem. The crew pushed it along the road section but were forced to retire before they reached the service park.

Makinen felt the engine on his Impreza was down on power on some of the stages, but admitted there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the car. He ended the leg in eighth position.

Team boss David Lapworth said: "We haven't seen Petter's car yet, so we don't know what the problem was, but clearly there is something not right. We put more fuel in the car than we did for the same loop of stages this morning, when the car made it back without a problem."

Makinen added: "Not such a good day today. I don't really know what is wrong, the engine doesn't feel quite right and maybe the suspension was a little bit too stiff. Tomorrow some damp conditions in the long stage would help us make some time up."

Skoda Motorsport's Toni Gardemeister crashed out of the rally on the second stage after suffering from brake problems. Didier Auriol's Fabia was hit by shock absorber problems through the second loop of stages.

Auriol spent the day outside of the top ten. His run through the first two stages of the day were without incident, but the suspension trouble in stages three and four cost him a lot of time. The Fabia moved around too much on the fast roads, forcing the Frenchman to lift off and get to the end of the tests. Gardemeister was marginally slower than his team-mate through the opening stage, but then crashed off the road and rolled 21 kilometres into the next one.

Auriol said: "The car was handling very well this morning, but then the shock absorbers broke. I don't know which one it was, maybe all of them. The car was hopping around all over the place – very difficult to drive. For the final loop it was fine again."

Gardemeister added: "I had some brake trouble on the first stage, so I didn't push too hard. On the next one the brakes went completely coming into one corner, the only way for me to slow the car was to drive into a wall. We hit that, rolled over and went backwards into a tree. It's very disappointing to go out of the rally this early."

Of the other entries Fiat driver Mirco Baldacci leads the FIA Junior World Rally Championship runners at the end of leg one on his third attempt at this event. The San Marino man is almost 1 minute 30 seconds ahead of Daniel Carlsson's Suzuki.

Of the non-factory drivers, Peugeot's official test driver Cedric Robert was the fastest. His 2001-specification 206 WRC ran without fault through the opening leg. The similar machine of Roman Kresta gave the Czech Republic driver some brake problems on the opening loop, but otherwise he was happy with his 12th overall at the end of today's action.



Rally statistics:

Starters: 54 crews (41 Group A and 10 Group N) started this morning.

Top retirements: Hirvonen (FIN), Solberg (N), Gardemeister (FIN), Tirabassi (F).

Today - Friday 3 October: Leg 1 started from Sanremo at 06h30 and covered 551.24km, including 142.14km on six stages. The first car arrived back in Sanremo at 20h13.

Tomorrow - Saturday 6 September: Leg 2 starts from Sanremo at 07h00 and covers 491.06km, including 149.10km on four stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Sanremo at 19h20.

Weather forecast: Showers expected overnight, with changeable conditions tomorrow.



Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Perinaldo 1 (12.40kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 7m 56.2
2. Duval (B) Ford 7m 56.7
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 57.5

SS2 Ceppo 1 (36.42kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 24m 05.5
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 24m 20.2
3. Duval (B) Ford 24m 25.6

Leaders after SS2:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 32m 01.7
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 32m 17.7
3. Duval (B) Ford 32m 22.3

SS3 Cosio 1 (19.19kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 11m 51.8
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 12m 00.9
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 12m 01.5

Leaders after SS3:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 44m 03.0
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 44m 22.8
3. Duval (B) Ford 44m 24.3

SS4 S. Bartolomeo 1 (25.31kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 14m 47.2
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 14m 48.4
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 14m 56.1

Leaders after SS4:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 58m 51.4
2. Martin (EE) Ford 59m 12.9
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 59m 20.1

SS5 Perinaldo 2 (12.40kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 7m 45.6
2. Martin (EE) Ford 7m 46.1
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 50.2

Leaders after SS5:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 06m 37.0
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 06m 59.0
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 07m 10.3

SS6 Ceppo 2 (36.42kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 23m 38.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 23m 49.1
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 23m 55.0

Leaders after SS6:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 30m 15.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford +32.4
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +49.6
4. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 14.8
5. Duval (B) Ford +1m 19.0
6. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +1m 29.6
7. McRae (GB) Citroen +1m 41.9
8. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +2m 50.2




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