France - day 1: Loeb blitzes pack - again
10 October 2008
Just like in Spain seven days ago, Sebastien Loeb utterly dominated the opening day of the Rallye de France-Tour Corse to leave his rivals looking more than a tad second rate.
Loeb romped into the lead immediately this morning on the thirteenth round in the World Rally Championship. Indeed he completed the opening test - the 15.92 kilometre-run through Acqua Doria-Serra di Ferro - in 9 minutes 27.4 seconds, 4 seconds up on Mikko Hirvonen, who was 'best of the rest'.
The four-time world champion then increased his advantage further in SS2 - to 7.2 seconds - before doubling it in SS3, to return to the mid-day halt at Port CCI with a 14.4 second cushion.
In the afternoon, on the repeat loop, the Citroen star pushed on - 6.1 seconds up on Hirvonen in SS4 and 5.2 seconds ahead of his championship rival in SS5. With his sixth stage win in succession in Arbellara he ends the leg with a 32.3 second advantage.
"It's been an excellent day. We pushed hard and now we've got a good lead," said Loeb, who is looking to strengthen his position at the top of the drivers' championship and move closer to a record fifth world crown. "I think I will stay on this pace now in order to remain concentrated."
There is one key difference to Catalunya last week though and that is the absence of Dani Sordo in the sister 'works' C4 WRC.
Sordo had been running second overall post-SS2, until he hit a bank in the next stage and went out. Although Dani and co-driver Marti Marti both escaped uninjured, they were not able to continue. Assuming Sordo can rejoin the fold on day two under the SupeRally, he will pick up 20 minutes worth of penalties – something that will drop him way down the leaderboard.
Sordo's issues leave BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen and Francois Duval second and third respectively - split by just 1.7 seconds - but neither had an answer to Loeb.
"I tried to stay in touch, but there was nothing I could do," Mikko admitted. "It's been a good opening leg despite everything, and the car is good. But that's just not enough against Sebastien."
Duval echoed those sentiments: "We are third for the moment and that's a good result, even though I hoped to be closer to Sebastien this evening."
Further down the order Petter Solberg heads an exciting squabble for fourth, 1.2 seconds up on Jari-Matti Latvala, who is sandwiched between Hollywood's Subaru Impreza and the sister car of Chris Atkinson. Atkinson is just 2.7 seconds further back.
Petter slipped behind Jari-Matti and Atkinson in SS4 this afternoon, but just like at the end of the opening loop, he moved back up into P4 in the 7.42 kilometre Arbellara-Aullene test.
"I'm very satisfied," said Petter, "We've changed the settings and it's all very positive."
"Everything is okay," added Jari. "It's a good fight with Chris and Petter. I think that's going to carry on throughout the weekend."
Suzuki's Toni Gardemeister and Ramsport Ford runner Andreas Mikkelsen round out the provisional points' scorers' in seventh and eighth - although neither had a particularly easy day.
Gardemeister is still not 100 per cent after suffering from a fever earlier this week and he said that while the SX4 WRC felt okay, the times were still pretty 's**t'.
Mikkelsen would have been comfortably in front of the Finn, but for a mistake by his co-driver en-route to SS1. The youngster started the test 8 minutes late as a result and subsequently picked up a 1 minute 20 second penalty.
"It was tricky to start off with," Mikkeslen reflected, "but things got better as the day went on. I'm really looking forward to leg two now."
Of the rest Subaru 'third' driver Brice Tirabassi is right on the tail of Gardemeister and Mikkelsen, only 2.9 seconds off the latter, while Urmo Aava, Conrad Rautenbach and Per-Gunnar Andersson are also split by only a handful of seconds in tenth, eleventh and twelfth.
Mads Ostberg, Matthew Wilson and Khalid Al-Qassimi complete the top 15, followed by Brit's Barry Clark and Gareth Jones.
Henning Solberg was running in that group until a puncture in the final stage cost him over 4 minutes and dropped him back. He finishes the day outside the top 20.
"I lost time with puncture. When we stopped to change a wheel, the car fell off the jack," Henning recalled.
In the Junior World Rally Championship category, 'wild card' runner, Pierre Campana snatched the lead from Martin Prokop in the final stage. Prokop had won all three tests this morning, but after hitting something in SS6, he slipped down to second, 9.1 seconds off P1.
Alessandro Bettega completes the J-WRC top three - 4.6 seconds off Prokop, while the two championship hopefuls, Sebastien Ogier and Aaron Burkart are fourth and fifth, with Florian Niegel sixth.
The action now continues on Saturday and day two takes competitors north of Ajaccio for two identical loops of three speed tests covering 122.84 kilometres - the longest day of the rally. The opening stage climbs to almost 930 metres while the other two tests skirts the picturesque Golfe de Sagone. Cars leave Ajaccio at 07.45 and return at 18.28 [all times local].