Loeb, Solberg remain locked in Welsh battle
18 September 2004
World championship favourite Sebastien Loeb will not be allowed an easy passage to that first title, as Petter Solberg maintains the pressure in an attempt to stop his crown heading to France.
Loeb remains on top of the leaderboard in the Wales Rally GB at the end of the second leg but, as was the case on Friday, Solberg chiselled away at his lead throughout the afternoon, ending the day just 7.3secs adrift, that gap, at one point, having been more than double that.
The conditions again sparked memories of the old November rallies that used to end the world championship in Britain, with thick rain and heavy mist blanketing the valleys around Swansea as the crews set off. The precipitation meant that the opening three stages around the Epynt military ranges were not only slippery, but increasingly tricky as the gravel gave way to mud.
Loeb started the day determined to increase his advantage over the Norwegian, and showed his intent with victory on the opening stage at Crychan. The Citroen driver headed former world champion Marcus Gronholm by just a tenth through the first test, with Solberg third overall, a full 1.6secs adrift of his French rival.
Gronholm was only seven seconds behind Solberg going into the second day, comfortably ahead of his nearest challenger, and, with a slim chance of snatching the title at the end of the year, was pressing on right from the start. The never-say-die attitude was not necessarily suited to the conditions, however, and the Finn paid for his haste on stage nine.
The Epynt test, while a familiar name to rally enthusiasts, was a new stage to the rally, and featured a tarmac section in the middle of its 13km length. This is what caught Gronholm out, the Peugeot driver sliding wide at a relatively slow corner, ploughing through straw bales and into the roadside pole that they were protecting. The damage was immediately plain to see, with a wheel hanging off the 307 and its steering awry. Gronholm made it to the end of the stage on three wheels, but was well over the time limit, and out of the event.
That left the rest of the day effectively a battle between Loeb and Solberg, although there was one interloper who decided to muscle in on the stage-winning act.
Fastest through Epynt was Francois Duval, the young Belgian edging Loeb by just under a second. Fifth on the first stage of the day, Duval was in his element on Epynt, and showed that his result was no fluke by remaining in the top three stage times until the long test at Margam that followed the service halt. The Ford driver also won the same stage second time around, as the field repeated the loop after a fuel and tyre stop at Sennybridge.
Loeb and Solberg ensured that the stage wins were kept among the select trio throughout, with the Norwegian taking those not claimed by Duval, but 'allowing' the Belgian the glory of winning in front of the Superspecial crowd as the rally returned to Cardiff in the evening.
Duval's form was a morale boost for the Ford team, still shocked at hearing about its paymasters decision top axe both its F1 operation and the Cosworth engine concern on Friday. The M-Sport team also suffered a setback between the two loops through Epynt, with Markko Martin, elevated to third by Gronholm's demise, running into engine problems that would plague him for three stages until the car could be serviced at Velindre.
The Estonian was lucky to have built up a big enough cushion of nearest challenger Carlos Sainz, as he dropped almost a minute through Crychan, Epynt and Halfway second time around. Although the driver was unable to find the root of the problem during a roadside check, his crew diagnosed a faulty boost valve during service, and the repair appeared to work, with Martin claiming third on the very next stage, Margam, and then fourth around the Superspecial to re-open a little breathing space to Sainz.
The Spaniard held on to fourth overall at the end of another quiet day, but had dropped 18secs off Martin in the race for the final podium spot. Sainz also enjoyed more than a minute in hand over fifth placed Duval, but will undoubtedly have to watch the young Belgian, who will have his tail up on Sunday.
Sixth spot was disputed right to the end of the leg, with Harri Rovanpera and Mikko Hirvonen swapping places on Margam, and the Peugeot driver holding a slim two-second lead after the return to Cardiff had seen both navigate the Superspecial without incident. The switch of position had been facilitated by a brief excursion for Hirvonen, who had filled his radiator duct with mud after an unplanned visit to a roadside ditch, the Subaru's engine management switching to safe mode - and less power - as compensation until the obstruction could be cleared.
Gronholm's early exit allowed Mark Higgins to consolidate his role as top Briton comfortably inside the top ten. The leading privateer frequently posted top-ten times on the stages, and was aided in his rise up the leaderboard by problems for Henning Solberg, Jani Paasonen and Janne Tuohino, who had all taken turns to chase the Brit before hitting trouble.
Solberg, Petter's brother, ran into turbo problems after planting his car in a ditch, and struggled on until the tyre halt, after which his pace - and overall position - began to pick up again. Paasonen and Tuohino were not so lucky, however, both ending their rally by the roadside after mechanical gremlins struck.
Manfred Stohl and former mountain bike ace Nicolas Vouilloz head Higgins' closest challengers, but currently lie 31secs and 4min 24secs adrift of the Briton in eleventh and twelfth respectively.
The JWRC battle remains firmly in the hands of Mirco Baldacci and the Suzuki team, but the class power has seen its number trimmed by one with the untimely demise of Per-Gunnar Andersson.
The Swede was locked in a tense battle with team-mate Guy Wilks over the opening couple of stages but, having clawed himself back in front at the end of stage ten, promptly went off the road on the resumption in Crychan.
Freed from the pressure of fighting for his position, Wilks then went on the offensive, taking the fight to Baldacci for P1 in class. Although the Italian held the advantage at the end of the day, the gap between them had fluctuated throughout, with Wilks closing to just under 32secs by parc ferme.
Day three sees the remaining crews leave the Velindre service park in Swansea at 0630hrs before embarking on the first of two runs through the 30km Rhondda stage. The test is repeated after another brief visit to service, before a revisit to Margam and the Cardiff Superspecial, which will end the rally live on television at just after 1400hrs. The total leg distance covers 269.1km, with 90.94km of that in competition.