Rally Portugal-day 3: Four from four for Loeb
5 April 2009
Sebastien Loeb moved one step closer to fulfilling his desire of winning all twelve World Rally Championship events in 2009 as he completed a comfortable victory in Portugal.
A fourth win of the year for Loeb, as well as his 51st career triumph, his run of six stage wins on leg two did the damage as he simply maintained the gap to Mikko Hirvonen over leg three to finish 24 seconds ahead.
Beginning the day with a 26.8secs advantage, Loeb defied his road position to eke out a further four seconds over Hirvonen after his rival struggled with the effects of lingering dust, as well as low sun.
Although the Finn fought back with victory on stages 16 and 17, he was never in a position to settle for anything other than second position behind his main foe.
Hirvonen had led the way after day one, benefitting from team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala's premature retirement from the lead, the Finn lucky not to have been injured after rolling his car 17 times down a steep hill.
He also made the most of Loeb's error on the first stage of the day when he overshot a junction and was then left to wait for dust around him to settle before he could get going again.
However, despite losing around 20 seconds, the error arguably benefitted Loeb as he ended day one in touch but, most importantly, third on the road. With Hirvonen and Dani Sordo sweeping the road ahead on day two, Loeb duly made the most of it by claiming six stage wins and ending the leg with a sizeable margin.
Although Hirvonen had hoped to turn the tables on day three, the lingering dust being kicked up by Loeb put paid to his charge and he was forced to settle a fourth podium of the season instead.
Having struggled last time out in Cyprus, Sordo was a solid – if distant third – in the second Citroen C4 to help the French manufacturer extend their dominant lead in the constructors' standings.
The Spaniard had been amongst the leaders on day one and into day two, but a couple of errors on the second leg put Sordo out of touch of the main fight, the youngster subsequently choosing to concentrate on reaching the finish line for a result that strengthens his third position in the overall standings too.
Nonetheless, his day one efforts were enough to avoid a repeat of his battle for the final podium finish with Petter Solberg, the Norwegian struggling a little more with his ageing, but nonetheless reliable, Citroen Xsara on the faster Portuguese stages.
Even so, Solberg's problems were limited to merely getting stuck behind Marcus Gronholm on SS5, while stage times that saw him occasionally get amongst the leaders marks another astounding performance from the former champion in a car that is now touching four years old.
The rally was not without drama though, particularly on the final day after Matthew Wilson and Conrad Rautenbach both crashed out of points' winning spots positions on penultimate stage.
Wilson was heading for a comfortable fifth place finish after shaking off the advances of Henning Solberg on the opening stage of the day when the Stobart Ford developed a misting windscreen problem that cost him around 40 seconds.
However, Wilson surrendered the position on SS17 when he went straight on at the end of a long straight, the young British driver blaming a long brake pedal for the accident. Proceeding to roll, although he got the Focus back onto its wheels, Wilson burned the clutch out in his attempts to get back on the road. Even more galling for Wilson was his retirement came just before he could crawl over the finish line at the end of the stage.
The same stage also cost Rautenbach, who had moved up to eighth position when Evgeny Novikov crashed out of seventh on SS15 as he diced with Mads Ostberg. The Zimbabwean was heading for seventh when he came off the road and rolled, his Citroen subsequently catching fire and causing the stage to be stopped as fire crews reached him. Both he and co-driver Daniel Barritt were unhurt.
A rally of attrition, day two had already seen Gronholm end his hopes of a superb podium finish on his return to the World Rally Championship with a roll on SS5, while Sebastien Ogier also found himself out of contention on the same stage when he damaged his car in an off.
With five leading drivers forced to retire, the top eight points' finishes took on a very different look by the end of the rally, with Solberg claiming a hard-fought fifth having battled back from day one brake issues, while Ostberg was able to celebrate his career best WRC finish in the Subaru Impreza in sixth position.
Despite finishing some 13 minutes off the lead, a steady, but trouble-free, run for Federico Villagra was rewarded with a surprising seventh place finish in the Munchi's Ford, while Khalid Al-Qassimi grabbed the final point in eighth for the factory Ford team having shown occasionally impressive stage times as he fought back from day one electrical woes.
Behind the WRC drivers, arguably the biggest cheer at the stadium finish, however, was saved for Production WRC winner Armindo Araujo, who delighted his local fans by completing victory in his Mitsubishi Lancer.
Despite not always being the quickest driver in the class, Araujo was one of the few to avoid any problems, unlike expected frontrunners Patrik Sandell, Patrik Flodin and Nasser Al-Attiyah. Winning by more than a minute, Araujo is also the new leader in the overall standings.
Having hit problems early on, Martin Prokop's perseverance was rewarded with a second place finish, the Czech driver snatching the position on the final stage when Eyvind Brynhildsen hit mechanical woes. The Norwegian did make it to the finish, however, to claim third in class.
In Junior WRC, Michal Kosciuszko completed victory by a huge margin, the Pole keeping his Suzuki pointing in the right direction to claim a dominant win. Kevin Abbring was second, but more than six minutes behind the winner, while Hans Weijs sneaked third after Luca Griotti rolled out of contention.