24 September 2006
Loeb does Cypriot hat-trick.
Kronos Citroen's Sebastien Loeb won the Cyprus Rally on Sunday, the twelfth round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship - the third time in as many years he has triumphed on the 'Island of Aphrodite'.
Loeb took the lead on day two after Marcus Gronholm spun in SS14. Prior to that he had lost ground on Friday in the opening loop, when he had to run first on the road and sweep away the loose gravel. Although he came back at the Finn on the second run through, Gronholm went into Saturday with a 6.4 second advantage.
On day two it appeared that Gronholm would have enough of a cushion to win and in the morning there was nothing between them and they completed the first run through the 30.33 km Foini test, with virtually identical times, just 0.1 seconds between them, while the next best driver was some 45 seconds further adrift.
In the afternoon though the pendulum swung in Seb's favour and after Gronholm spun on SS14, Loeb went in front by 1 second. The two-time world champion then put the hammer down in SS15 and SS16, to end the second leg 21.8 seconds in front, giving him a good cushion to take into the final day. Loeb began the final day by once again stamping his authority on proceedings, increasing his advantage by another 7.3 seconds. After that Gronholm eased off and although the Finn won the remaining three tests - SS20 and SS21 having been neutralised - Seb paced himself to the finish in Lemesos, eventually triumphing by 21.2 seconds.
The victory, his eighth of the season, moved him closer to taking his third world title, now 35 points ahead and while mathematically he can still be beaten by Gronholm, Loeb only has to take fifth place in Turkey in two-three weeks time to wrap up the drivers' championship.
Gronholm meanwhile elected to ease off on the final day, conscious that his second place would further boost BP Ford's bid to win the constructors'. Indeed the M-Sport-run squad again finished 2-3, and in doing so they reduced Kronos Citroen's advantage in the manufacturers', down from 12 points to just 7. Marcus though will be none too pleased with his error on day two, especially as he also did the same thing in Japan three weeks ago and ironically also in SS14.
Hirvonen in contrast, while over 5 minutes off the leading two at the finish, was not too disappointed with third. He settled into P3 early on Friday and opened up a comfortable gap over Manfred Stohl during the second leg, increasing his cushion from around 25 seconds to a minute. On the final day he ensured he matched the Austrian's spilts, eventually finishing 1min 23.6secs in front to claim his third consecutive podium place and his fifth in six rallies.
Stohl was pleased to take fourth though, even if he had been keen to emulate his Cypriot podium from 2005. The OMV Peugeot ace though conceded that such a feat is not likely at the moment, given the form of Loeb and the Ford team. He was though the highest placed 'manufacturer two' entry - and that was some consolation.
Toni Gardemeister was fifth, on his first outing since the Rallye Deutschland at the start of August - the Finn once again putting in a good drive in his Astra-run Citroen Xsara WRC. Although he had a few problems on day one with gearbox/transmission issues he was on course for points throughout and even managed to set two third best times on both runs through the Foini-Koilinia stage, the longest of the event at 30.33 km. He was also second quickest in the Down Town Special, but that was only for 'fun', due to safety concerns.
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