Perfect return for Loeb with new C4
18 January 2007
Citroen number one driver, Sebastien Loeb returned to action in the FIA World Rally Championship in style Thursday night by topping the times on both night stages that made up the opening leg of the 2007 Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo.
Seb was 8.5 seconds up on his team-mate, Daniel Sordo, on the 28.52 kilometre run through St Jean en Royans-Col de Lachau and then stretched his advantage further on stage two, the 17.88 km La Cime du Mas-Col de Gaudissart.
The Frenchman will now take a 23.9 second lead into the second day on Friday, having already established that the new Citroen C4 WRC car, is just as good as its predecessor, the Citroen Xsara WRC, although whether or not it will remain reliable remains to be seen. Loeb opted for a harder tyre on the first leg, and that definitely seemed to do the trick. His speed also showed that he is suffering little ill affect following his mountain bike accident in the autumn last year, despite statements from him to contrary before the start, when he reckoned he wasn't 100 per cent.
Dani Sordo began his first official outing with Citroen by playing the perfect supporting role. The Spaniard was second quickest on SS1 and third best in SS2, to return to the first service at Valence 5.2 seconds up on BP Ford's Marcus Gronholm. While the 2005 Junior WRC champion is no doubt benefiting from the fact there is no snow or ice and it is virtually an asphalt event, it was still a good start, considering like Seb, he is in a new car, the C4 and is obviously less familiar with it than the Xsara.
Gronholm, who conceded prior to the start that this would be a tough event, was the only driver to get near the Citroen C4's, third quickest in SS1 and second in SS2, although he was still 14 odds seconds off Loeb in both stages. Marcus opted for a cautious start and the Finn did not enjoy the tests in the dark one little bit.
Mikko Hirvonen was fifth fastest in both tests in the sister BP Ford Focus WRC car - he ended up more than 50 seconds off Loeb after the first leg and 22.6 seconds behind his team-mate. Like Gronholm, Mikko wasn't a big fan of driving in the dark either - although he was nonetheless happy with his overnight position.
Subaru's Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson kept the two-by-two formation going and came in fifth and sixth, just 2.5 seconds between them. While Petter was fourth in SS1 though, he was only 8th quickest in SS2, as he struggled for traction in the damp and slippery conditions. Atkinson in contrast, was less good in the first test and was ninth, before bouncing back with the 4th best time in the La Cime du Mas-Col de Gaudissart test. The Aussie had no complaints about doing the stages at night.
Further down the order, Manfred Stohl is seventh, the only driver competing under the OMV Kronos Citroen WRT banner. The Austrian was satisfied with his start, adding that its' important for him to get as much mileage as possible in the Xsara.
Toni Gardemeister rounds out the provisional points scorers at this stage in eighth, in his privately entered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC 05, while Xavier Pons is eleventh in the second car entered by MMSP Ltd. Jan Kopecky and Jean-Marie Cuoq complete the top ten, the former getting off to a good start in his Czech Rally Team-run Skoda Fabia WRC, and setting the sixth best time in SS1, before dropping back in SS2.
Of the rest, Jari-Matti Latvala heads the Stobart trio in twelfth, while his team-mates, Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg are 35-40 seconds further back, in 15th and 16th place respectively. Sandwiched between the Stobart trio is Frederic Romeyer in his Peugeot 206 and Gareth MacHale, also in a M-Sport-run Ford Focus.
In the Group N category, Olivier Burri leads the way in his Subaru Impreza, 1.8 seconds up on Red Bull's Andreas Aigner, who is using this event as a warm-up for his first outing in the Production Car World Rally Championship next month in Sweden.
The action now resumes on Friday, with a more usual leg. Day two is the longest of the rally and covers a massive 150.62km of competition in the Ardèche region, south-west of Valence. After leaving the city at 06.50, drivers tackle two identical clockwise loops of three stages, split by a return to Valence for a lunchtime service. The opening test of each loop is a massive 46.02km, after which there is a brief 15 minute period of limited service in Vals les Bains. Competitors return to Valence for the overnight halt at 20.41.
SS3, the 46.02 kilometre run through St Pierreville-Antraigues gets underway at 08.19 hours local time.
More to follow then...