Loeb seizes Acropolis lead
24 June 2005
Citroen team leader, Sebastien Loeb leads the Acropolis Rally this evening following the conclusion of the opening leg.
The Frenchman stormed through the final test of the day and turned a 9.1 second deficit to Marcus Gronholm, who led after SS6, into a 6.1 second lead following SS7, the longest of the event, the Elatia-Zeli test [32.55 km].
Loeb now looks well placed ahead of the rest of the event and will be gunning for his fifth successive victory, following wins in New Zealand, Sardinia, Cyprus and Turkey. The reigning world champion was especially impressive as he was at a disadvantage early on running first on the road.
"There have been rallies where the handicap of running first on the road has been lessened by damp conditions. But that can't happen everywhere, so it's only normal that I should the pay the price of being first on the road in dry weather from time to time," he said. "I can tell you I was especially pampered today, especially first time through Rengini!
"I didn't feel 100 per cent comfortable. I was unsure of both my set-up and my driving, but at the end of the day I think this was probably due to the stages themselves as much as anything. Happily, the end of Elatia-Zeli was clean and I was able to push hard, both times through. The first time so as not to lose too much ground and the second time through to take the lead."
Gronholm meanwhile is 'best of the rest' - the Finn having posted two quickest stages time today in his 307 WRC and will surely push tomorrow to try and put himself back on top.
"At the end of the day I am happy as I am only six seconds behind Sebastien Loeb," said Gronholm. "I think tomorrow's stages will suit us better: these stages are the most difficult of the rally. The surfaces are very damaging, and our tyres should work well in these conditions. I'm going to attack!"
Carlos Sainz is third in the second Xsara, the Spaniard again showing he can still deliver, despite a seven month lay-off. Sainz, who returned in Turkey earlier this month, to replace Francois Duval, even won SS6 to show there is still plenty of life left in the WRC's elder statesmen.
"I obviously benefited from a cleaner surface today," admitted Sainz. "I tried to keep it very clean, taking extra care through the rougher portions. The balance of my Xsara suits me perfectly. It is more to my liking, more precise than in Turkey. I feel very confident."
Toni Gardemeister is next up for Ford, ahead of fellow Focus runner, Mikko Hirvonen. The latter had led going into the mid-day service but transmission problems in SS5, which left him without first, second and third gears, cost him valuable time and he is now 48.8 seconds off the leader.
Harri Rovanpera is sixth for Mitsubishi, while Henning Solberg and Gigi Galli round out the provisional points' scorers, the latter just over 10 seconds in front of Markko Martin, who is ninth.
"I don't really understand today," said Martin. "The car seemed difficult to drive; maybe my choice of tyres was not the best for the afternoon's loop of stages. Tomorrow I will go back to the tyre choice we had this morning, which seemed to work better for us."
Of the other 'works' drivers, Petter Solberg's day has gone from bad to worse, an off in SS2 this morning slowed the Norweigan as he lost the boot lid and rear spoiler. This afternoon a broken left-rear drive-shaft in SS5 limited him to three-wheel drive and as a result he has plummeted down the leader-board. He now lies 14th overall behind Tobias Johansson, Kristian Sohlberg, Jani Paasonen and Xavier Pons.
"We've had such bad luck today and so many things have gone against us," said 'Hollywood'. "Everything that we'd planned went completely wrong and I'm very disappointed. Damaging the driveshaft at such a critical part of the day, with three stages ahead, left me no opportunity to fight. It's very hard to accept, but that's just how it is."
Solberg's team-mates' - Chris Atkinson and Stephane Sarrazin also had a dismal day. Sarrazin suffered two punctures in the space of two tests this afternoon and after damaging his suspension had to retire from the leg in SS6. Sarrazin will re-start tomorrow Atkinson however won't, after he had engine problems in SS6.
"I came out of a corner with about a kilometre to go when the engine made some horrible noises and lost power," explained the Aussie. "To put it simply, there is a hole where there shouldn't be a hole. It is obviously very disappointing for the rally finish the way in which it did. I will now turn my focus on getting a solid overall result in the Argentina next month."
Skoda were another team to suffer and SS3 brought a double blow, when both drivers' nominated to score manufacturers' points went out - Armin Schwarz with engine problems and Janne Tuohino with clutch woes. Paasonen remains the sole Fabia still competing in twelfth.
"Although I am disappointed that we lost two cars today Janne's pace was within the top seven or eight places before he hit the rock and Jani's performance is solid so far," said Skoda team manager, Joan Sureda. "We have repaired Armin's car and he will return for tomorrow. We will not continue in the rally with Janne as the engine was new for this event. For the same reasons that we pulled Armin out of Turkey we will do the same with Janne and save the engine for another rally."
The final 'works' retirement from the leg was Roman Kresta, the Czech's day ending on the opening test this morning with a broken steering arm.
"It happened at a left-right corner, the same bend as Toni had a problem. I turned into the right bend over a dip and the car slid into the bank on the left, breaking the steering," explained Kresta. "I'm really disappointed because [team boss] Malcolm [Wilson] had told me I could drive flat out and I was looking forward to the weekend."
In the Junior WRC, Per-Gunnar Andersson took command this morning and hasn't looked threatened since. His main rivals - Guy Wilks, Daniel Sordo and Kris Meeke have all hit problems, and consequently he leads by over 2 minutes. Urmo Aava and Luca Betti currently lead the chasing pack in second and third respectively.
The second leg tomorrow [Saturday] is again based south of Lamia, but further west. It ventures along the slopes of Mount Iti and Mount Giona, stretching south towards the rally's former base in Itea. Drivers face two identical loops of four stages covering 122.72km, split by a midday service back in Lamia. They leave the town at 08.30 and return for the final overnight halt at 19.05.