Argentina - day 3: Loeb overcomes gruelling test
30 March 2008
Citroen's Sebastien Loeb triumphed on the Rally Argentina for the fourth year in succession on Sunday, despite some horrendous weather conditions, which made it one of the most challenging events in recent years.
Indeed throughout the three days torrential downpours, mud, fog and wild winds were the common themes, making it a real rally of attrition, with only three of the 13 works drivers' escaping without any major issues and unsurprisingly they locked out the podium.
It wasn't until SS5, however, that Seb got his hands on P1, when BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen hit a rock and was forced out.
Prior to that the Finn had been in a class of his own and he stormed through SS1, a massive 48.1 seconds up on Jari-Matti Latvala, while Seb was 'only' third.
Loeb then lost further ground in SS2, SS3 and SS4 and while he moved up into P2, following Latvala's off in Ascochinga 1, the Frenchman couldn't match Mikko, who notched up two more stages wins and went into the first service with a 50.8 second cushion.
On the repeat loop on Friday afternoon though, Seb soon inherited the lead when Hirvonen damaged his suspension. After all the rain the stages were muddy and rutted and as the roads became softer, rocks that had not been visible during the recce became exposed on the second pass, causing problems for many, with Mikko the first major victim.
Loeb though had no such problems and paced himself through SS6 and SS7, setting two fifth fastest efforts to maintain his 50 second advantage, before finally finishing the day with a 1 minute 30.6 second lead, after his closest rival suffered two spins in the penultimate test.
On day two, Seb set the third fastest time on the first stage of the day, before topping the times in both SS11 and SS12. He then notched up the fourth best time in SS13 and returned to the mid-day halt having fractionally extended his lead to 1 minute 32.4 seconds.
In the afternoon he took another stage win in SS15 as well as setting two second best times in SS14 and SS16 and a third best in SS17.
Following the repeat run through the 1.78 kilometre super special, in which he was second, he concluded proceedings still way out front, although the gap was reduced ever so slightly to 1 minute 19.6 seconds.
The final day, while still tough, caused the four-time world champion no problem and he took another stage win - his fifth of the event - before bringing his C4 WRC car home 2.5 minutes ahead of Chris Atkinson.
"Believe me, it wasn't easy," said Loeb. "Given the delicate conditions, we had to stay doubly concentrated from start to finish."
Loeb now re-takes the lead in the drivers' championship, 5 points ahead of Hirvonen, who drops to second.
Chris Atkinson meanwhile took the runners-up spot, after his team-mate, Petter Solberg was forced out on the final day in SS19 with electrical problems. The Aussie moves up to third in the drivers' championship and while he was happy to have survived he was disappointed to see 'Hollywood' go out so near the end.
"It's been such a hard weekend it's more of a relief to finish! Another podium is fantastic for us and for the team," he reflected. "It's a real shame about Petter as he was going very well and we should have had two cars on the podium, but it demonstrates that we're definitely moving in the right direction."
Daniel Sordo took the final spot on the podium, 1.5 minutes further back in his C4. The Spaniard had no real problems and like the other people on the rostrum couldn't believe just how tough an event it had been.
"It would have been so easy to get caught out," he added. "It really has been a difficult event."
Fellow C4 runner, Conrad Rautenbach was next up in fourth on only his second outing with the machine and while there was no doubt he did benefit from all the problems that hit the 'works' runners, he still put in a very intelligent and tactical drive and was justly rewarded.
Hirvonen bounced back from his problems on day 1 to take P5, a measure of just how many runners had problems. The Finn eventually finished 25 minutes off Loeb and 5 minutes off Rautenbach.
Fellow Ford runners Federico Villagra and Gigi Galli came in sixth and seventh, the former doing incredibly well after losing over 10 minutes on Saturday afternoon with exhaust issues.
Galli was also fortunate to get points and like Mikko did so thanks to the SupeRally format having retired from day 2 after hitting a rock in SS13 and damaging his Focus RS WRC.
Andreas Aigner completed the top eight and in addition to picking up the final 'senior' WRC point he also took the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship victory too.
Aigner led the PWRC category for all but one of the stages and eventually beat Sebastian Beltran by just over a minute. Jari Ketomaa was third in class and tenth overall, followed by Fumio Nutahara and Martin Rauam, who incidentally were 11th and 13th in the overall classification.
Sandwiched between Nutahara and Rauam was Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala used the SupeRally twice to get to the end in his BP Ford Focus RS WRC car and picked up 2 manufacturers' points for the 'Blue Oval'.
Per-Gunnar Andersson took the final manufacturers' point for Suzuki, but that was about the only positive thing for the Swede. He missed all of Friday's action after an electronic sensor failure en-route to SS1 and he then went out again on day 2 with suspension damage in SS14. He was classified 24th overall.
His team-mate, Toni Gardemeister didn't even manage that though, going out on day 1 after hitting a rock and damaging his suspension, while mechanical gremlins sidelined him on days 2 and 3.
Of the other works drivers' Luis-Perez Companc slid off the road on day one in SS8 and never re-joined as severe weather left him and his recovery team stranded on the stage.
Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson were also unable to finish, the latter having been set to get a good result until hit a rock in SS15 and damaged the suspension. Although he re-started on Sunday the same thing happened again in SS19 and he was subsequently forced to call it a day.
The WRC now continues at the end of next month, when drivers and teams head to the Middle East for the Jordan Rally, which runs from April 25-27.