Loeb only has to finish now to win in Cyprus...
14 May 2005
Citroen team leader, Sebastien Loeb looks all set to rack up his fourth victory of the season and his third on the trot, following leg two today [Saturday] in Cyprus.
With such a large advantage following the opening day, he was never under any pressure, however despite this he was fastest on all four stages that he drove competitively and now leads by 3 minutes 32.7 seconds.
The big question though is can he continue to avoid the carnage?
"I am pleased, of course. We didn't have any problems with the car and I didn't make any mistakes. Those two points were essential today and will be again tomorrow," said Loeb. "I tell myself that I am my own biggest rival. I must stay concentrated to avoid the sort of troubles that have decimated the field, especially since today's stages were in a better condition than yesterday's. Tomorrow's are rougher. When it's like that, when you haven't got a fight on your hands, you suffer at the same time as your car and it's difficult to derive any real pleasure."
Manfred Stohl meanwhile has hung onto second place, in his privately entered Xsara, a minute up on Henning Solberg, who is third.
"My Citroen is going very, very well. Kronos Racing are good listeners and very reactive when I ask for something," noted Stohl. "Their work is impeccable. Personally, I am taking it easy everywhere whenever the conditions dictate. There's only one day to go and although that's by no means a foregone conclusion, I find myself dreaming that I can finish on the podium. For a 'privateer', that really is something!"
Behind the leading trio Markko Martin maintains fourth and is driving the sole remaining Peugeot, following Marcus Gronholm's official retirement early this morning which was finally confirmed by Peugeot - even though he went out on SS1 on Friday.
"It's not been a bad day, and I've had no real problems," reflected the Estonian. "I've just concentrated on keeping the car on the road and avoiding all the dramas that seem to have affected everybody else. I am currently second of the manufacturer entries, and with no chance of taking the lead there is no point in pushing. This rally has been a real trial, and I'm just looking forward to getting to the finish tomorrow."
Ford's Toni Gardemeister lost precious time in the final stage of the leg with a puncture and holds a distant fifth, while Roman Kresta is next up in the sister 'works' Focus.
Harri Rovanpera was on course for sixth, but he had to stop in the final stage today, when he hit a rock damaging his front right suspension. The Finn elected to stop and incur a 5 minute penalty rather than continue and risk damaging his car further. He dropped to seventh as a result and plans to re-start tomorrow under the SupeRally regulations.
"It was the same right corner where Gardemeister got his puncture," explained Harri. "After he hit a rock, it dislodged more and we hit one that then came into the wheel housing and lodged into the damper, which obviously then got blocked. The suspension arm broke and although we tried to continue it was better to stop, not cause any more damage and be able to re-start tomorrow."
Janne Tuohino completes the last of the provisional points' scorers for Skoda, his only problem coming in SS8 when he had an issue with the turbo boost on his Fabia.
Further down the leaderboard, Chris Atkinson is 13th, after re-starting, while Gilles Panizzi is 15th and Armin Schwarz 16th. Schwarz was forced out again today when the sump guard hit a rock and catapulted the car off the stage in SS11. Like Rovanpera though he is expected to re-join on Sunday.
"Today was all about trying to drive with caution, almost at cruise speed, to stay out of trouble," said the German. "Unfortunately we ran over a big rock about 6kms into SS11 which kicked the car into the air from the impact with the sump guard. It was just before a corner and so we went off the road and couldn't get back on. The car isn't damaged and we should be back out again tomorrow."
Petter Solberg meanwhile was officially retired for good this morning, the team concerned about the condition of his engine.
The big - and third - permanent retirement today though was that of Francois Duval. The Belgian going out in spectacular fashion in SS11, when he went off the road in his Citroen Xsara WRC and hit a tree. Although Duval and his co-driver, Stephane Prevot were both unhurt - the car caught fire and as a result the stage was neutralised for all those running behind him.
"The braking zone for the right-hand turn [4km into SS11] was bumpy," explained Duval. "Bumpier than first time through [this morning]. I braked a little too late, missed the apex and under-steered off the road down a two-metre bank. The front of the car hit a tree and the impact damaged the fuel injection system. A small fire broke out but that was swiftly put out by the onboard extinguishers. I didn't succeed in opening the bonnet but I estimated that the damage wasn't too bad and tried to re-start. However, fire broke out again and the flames spread to the dry undergrowth around the car. There was nothing we could do."
In the Production Car WRC, there is no change, with Frenchman Brice Tirabassi still out front in his Subaru Impreza, some 2 minutes or so up on Sebastian Beltran, while Marcos Ligato completes the provisional class podium.
The final day tomorrow [Sunday] is the shortest with 95.34km of competition. Drivers leave Limassol at 06.00 and face two more loops of three identical stages in the hilly and forested Machairas area, north-east of the town. The two loops are split by service back in Limassol. Competitors return to the town for the final time for the seafront finish ceremony at 15.17.