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Loeb secures record 27th win in Japan

3 September 2006

Two-time world rally champion, Sebastien Loeb won the Rally Japan on Sunday - and in the process he secured his 27th WRC victory, to become the most successful driver in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Loeb's win, his first in Japan, now means he holds the all-time victory record, one better than his former Citroen team-mate, Carlos Sainz, who he equalled last month on the Rallye Deutschland.

The Frenchman's latest success though didn't come easy and Marcus Gronholm certainly made him work for it.

Loeb took the lead on day two, after Gronholm made a mistake in SS14. The Kronos Citroen ace ended proceedings on Saturday with a 25.6 second cushion – seemingly in a comfortable position. However Gronholm, as he promised, didn't give up and the Finn slashed that margin to 5.6 seconds at the finish, making Seb push all the way to the very end.

Loeb though held on and his victory, his seventh of the season, moved him ever closer to his third world title, increasing his margin over Gronholm from 31 points to 33, with five rounds to go.

Gronholm meanwhile for once, wasn't overly disappointed with second, although he was somewhat annoyed that his errors on Saturday morning had cost him the win – in total he lost 20 seconds with his spin in SS14 and then lost another 10 with another mistake in SS15. The Finn though enjoyed the battle and overall he took 15 stages wins out of a possible 27, while Seb took 'only' 11.

Gronholm's BP Ford team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen took the final podium place, over 2.5 minutes off the top two, but comfortably ahead of Aussie Chris Atkinson, who was fourth and a further 3 minutes further back - the best of the trio of works Subaru Impreza's.

Hirvonen settled into third pretty much from the off and was never really challenged. Despite that though he set a string of competitive times and was more often than not the best after the leading two, he even ended the rally on a high, by taking the stage win in the final blast around the Obihiro super special, which brought the event to a close.

Atkinson ended day one in sixth, after he was slowed by technical problems, picking up a 50 second penalty after leaving the first service late, when his mechanics had to fit a new suspension component. He put in a charge on day two and despite a moment in SS14, when he slightly re-modelled part of his Impreza, he overhauled Manfred Stohl and Daniel Sordo and ended the day in fourth. The Aussie eventually brought his car home on Sunday a minute or so ahead of Stohl, who took fifth.

Stohl enjoyed a pretty uneventful first outing in Japan and was well placed to score solid points in his OMV Peugeot throughout. He had the odd issue but nothing serious and therefore scooped four drivers' points for his trouble.

Further-down the order, local hero, Toshi Arai brought the 'third' SWRT Impreza home in sixth, and while he was also slowed by mechanical gremlins, like Atkinson and Subaru team leader, Petter Solberg, the Japanese driver was pleased with his form. Indeed for his first outing in a World Rally Car since 2001 it was quite a solid performance, although he did have the odd drama, most noticeably his off on day two, when he also hit a photographer. The 'snapper' was not seriously injured.

Solberg was next up, a disappointed seventh, the Norwegian having been plagued with problems throughout the three-day event - principally brake issues. While disappointed, he was also quick to point out that the team was none too pleased either, adding that their current form is difficult for everyone at the Banbury-based outfit - and those in Japan.

Fumio Nutahara secured the final WRC drivers' point in eighth, as well as taking the Production Car World Rally Championship honours and the overall Group N victory. Gabriel Pozzo ended up around 30 seconds adrift, in ninth, with Marcos Ligato completing the top ten - and the PCWRC top three.

Of the rest, Stobart VK's Luis-Perez Companc took eleventh under the SupeRally, after he ripped a wheel off his Focus in the penultimate test. His team-mate, Matthew Wilson also made it to the finish, having re-started Sunday under the SupeRally format. The Brit lost loads of time having missed most of day two though and finished up way down the leaderboard - 40th overall.

Fellow Ford user, Gareth MacHale also had problems and crashed out in SS25 after going off the road and hitting a bridge.

Jari-Matti Latvala was the other most notable casualty, the Finn, who led the Production Car WRC class by over a minute going into the final day, rolled out in the same test that claimed MacHale. Latvala though finished under the SupeRally, albeit only ninth in the PCWRC category, missing out on the final point.

Daniel Sordo brought the second Kronos-run Citroen home in seventh, however he was later excluded for a seat-belt infringement. Sordo was forced to get out of his car in SS26, after Companc's Focus had gone off and blocked the road. When he and co-driver, Marc Marti, got back into the Xsara though, they failed to re-fasten their seatbelts correctly and were later disqualified by the stewards as a result.

As such Kronos only scored 10 points in Japan, while BP Ford took 14, to reduce the gap between the two in the race for the constructors' crown to 12 points.

The 'circus' now heads to Cyprus in just under three weeks time, for the twelfth round. Rally Cyprus is the slowest and most twisty gravel rally on the schedule. This year the event has a different look to it. A move to later in the calendar than its usual mid-summer spot should lead to lower temperatures and an increased risk of rain, which could lend the rally an unusual complexion. The rally is based in the holiday resort of Limassol and starts from the sea-front on Friday September 22.


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