Victory for Citroen-Michelin's Sebastien Loeb this weekend in Sanremo not only gives the Frenchman his third win of the season, it also promotes him to second place in the provisional World Championship standings, just two points behind series leader Richard Burns.

With two of the three remaining events also organised on asphalt, Loeb's chances of taking the title have taken a serious boost and today's result sees Citroen edge marginally clear of Peugeot in the Manufacturers stakes too.

Gilles Panizzi joined his fellow Frenchman on the podium in second, along with Markko Martin, while the Italian round enabled Michelin to add a further win to its five-year unbeaten run on sealed surfaces. Only two of the 78 points up for grabs (39 Drivers, 39 Manufacturers) escaped the French firm's partners at the finish!

Just two years after springing to international acclaim with a second place on the 2001 Sanremo Rally, Sebastien Loeb provided further evidence that he, the Citroen Xsara WRC and Michelin tyres are the combination to beat at the moment on asphalt.

Following his wins already this year in Monte Carlo and Germany, the Frenchman lost no time carving out an enviable lead for himself on the opening day in Sanremo, and then controlled comfortably from in front to take the champagne. 'Comfortably', that is, until the ultimate loop of stages, when a surprise downpour in the mountains high above the Italian Riviera suddenly threatened to turn the weekend's established pecking order on its head.

The storm broke just as cars were leaving service for the last two stages, with positions seemingly set in concrete; Loeb's lead appeared safe, and nothing looked like preventing Markko Martin and Marcus Gronholm from joining him on the podium. But as the amount of rain actually falling on the stages became apparent, the significance of who had chosen which type of tyre gradually hit home: for all the WRC runners had chosen 'dry weather' rubber... except one, Gilles Panizzi. The Peugeot-Michelin driver lives in France, but just across the border from the Italian casino resort. So it was perhaps superior local knowledge that inspired him to fit Michelin wet weather tyres for what turned out to be a nightmare run for his rivals.

As the others struggled, Panizzi revelled in the water as he sliced his way from fifth to second overall. But his deficit compared with Loeb prior to the loop was just too much for him to succeed in toppling the Xsara driver from number one spot, despite the pressure the latter admitted to feeling over those final nerve-racking kilometres.

Surprisingly, the awesome conditions produced just one victim, Marcus Gronholm, who understeered into a wall, terminally damaging the front-left wheel of his 206 WRC. But Markko Martin, one of the stars of the weekend, and fastest on half the fourteen stages, survived the ordeal to take the bronze medal and make it three different manufacturers - all Michelin partners - on the final podium.

Fourth place for Carlos Sainz saw Citroen-Michelin's resident Spaniard collect extra points in his bid to stay in the running for the title, while Francois Duval will be encouraged by his result, one place ahead of Colin McRae.

But perhaps Richard Burns was the most relieved driver at the finish, having spent the entire rally trying to understand why he hadn't seemed capable of putting one foot in front of the other. Ninth overall before the final stage, he faced the prospect of being joined at the top of the table by Loeb. However, the incidents of that dramatic last stage enabled him to take the chequered flag in seventh place to pick up two very welcome championship points indeed... and who knows how important they may prove to be in the final reckoning!

 

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