12 March 2004
Loeb top in Mexico, penalty demotes Solberg.
2003 World Rally champion Petter Solberg led from the first stage today [Friday] in his new Subaru Impreza WRC2004, setting two fastest times to end leg 1 of the Corona Rally Mexico with a 5.6 second lead over Sebastien Loeb.
However, Solberg's engine would not start at the entrance to the final service park and he and co-driver Phil Mills had to push the car uphill into the time control. They arrived late and incurred a 40 second penalty, which dropped them to fourth. Stewards also later imposed an extra penalty - 5 minutes - for receiving outside assistance, despite not asking for it. They thus plummeted further down the leader-board to 13th.
"I'm extremely disappointed by what has happened," said Solberg. "It's almost unbelievable. Everything was going so well on the stages that to lose all that good work like this, when we were returning the car at the end of the day, is tough to accept. Up to this point we had really had a good day. The stages were very difficult, some fast, some slow, I think we had a bit of everything, but there were no major problems. I was looking forward to a good fight with Sebastien and Marcus [Gronholm] tomorrow, but now it's just about getting experience."
Loeb, who also claimed two stage wins, suffered a puncture and brake problems this morning but reduced the Norwegian's advantage this afternoon. He now heads the field though by 8.4 seconds, courtesy of the Solberg's bad luck.
"Despite some small brake problems, which meant that the pedal was a bit 'long' towards the end of the special stages, it has been a good day," commented the Frenchman, "Last night's rain cancelled out the 'sweeper' role that I might have had to play, as I was first on the road. I don't think I lost any time due to that, except perhaps in SS3, when I also lost a few seconds by stalling in a hairpin. They are forecasting rain for tomorrow. That is not 'seasonal' weather, and it could create some surprises."
Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm is second despite choosing tyres for the opening two stages that were too soft in the drier then expected conditions.
"Today has been fine," said the Finn, "but I still don't think I have 100 per cent confidence. It's been a reasonably productive four stages, but there is still more to come from myself and the car. This morning's conditions were quite tricky, but I think we can try some different things tomorrow that will help us. The car is still very new and we just have to work with what we've got for now."
Carlos Sainz meanwhile was another to opt for tyres that were too soft this morning, he finished the day third, 14.1 seconds up on Ford's Markko Martin. The Estonian was not pleased with his form.
"Something was missing from me but I'm not sure what," he said, "Because of the altitude the engine doesn't produce the same kind of power and I struggled to learn how to drive the car with less power than I'm used to. It's not so nice to drive the car in the high mountains but that's the same for everyone."
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