Subaru’s Petter Solberg notched up his third consecutive WRC win in Rally Sardinia on Sunday. Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb finished a distant second, but needs only five points to become world champion.
Subaru’s Petter Solberg notched up his third consecutive WRC win in Rally Sardinia on Sunday. Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb finished a distant second, two minutes and eight seconds behind his Norwegian rival, but needs only five points to become world champion.
Solberg, the defending world champion, set fastest times on no fewer than 13 of the 19 special stages. That included six of seven stages on the second day of the rally, when only Peugeot’s Marcus Gronholm was able to set the pace on SS11.
Loeb’s Xsara WRC04 was able to beat Solberg’s Impreza WRC on only two stages - once by 2,1 seconds, and a second time by 1,6 seconds - while the Norwegian's pace on the narrow, twisty Sardinian roads proved to be hard for anyone to match.
"It's been really hard work all the way. (Co-driver Phil) Mills was cheering as we crossed the finish line, but I was still too focused on the driving to take it all in," Solberg said at the finish. "It's been a very good few rallies, let me tell you, and it's a great feeling to take another win here, the team have been working so hard, and I think we've proved that we're the best team on gravel now."
However, Solberg's wins may have come too late in the season. A mid-season slump, which saw the Norwegian to fail to score any points in Argentina, Finland or Germany, left him 32 points adrift of Loeb in the championship fight before the current win streak.
Even if the Subaru star wins all three of this season’s remaining rallies, Loeb can clinch the title with a single fourth place finish.
"Just after the first stage, I said to myself that it will be difficult to beat Solberg here," Loeb said. "I went faster in some places but he always kept his lead. When Grönholm had some problems, I thought it wasn't stupid to go for the second place. And that's what we've done, just before two events which should favour us."
The Frenchman’s lead in the championship can be attributed to amazing consistency and his Citroën's stellar reliability… Loeb has finished in the top four on every rally this year, bar Rally Argentina, where his was forced to retire when a rock knocked off his car’s wheel.
On the other hand, consistency and reliability are something that Gronholm would love to have. The three-time champion was 10 seconds ahead of Loeb after SS8, but then the turbocharger on his Peugeot 307 WRC failed. He brought the stricken car to the end of the stage, but lost over 23 minutes in the process.
Gronholm matched and bettered Loeb's pace for the remainder of the rally, but had to settle for seventh place: "It took me a little while to find my rhythm, but eventually I was able to discover a good feeling with the car. I think we have proved once more that the 307 WRC has the pace to win on gravel, and now I am looking forward to proving its pace on asphalt on the next two rallies”.
Carlos Sainz, Loeb's veteran team-mate, was third, 3:20 off Solberg's pace, and scored six championship points to move past Markko Martin in the standings. Martin's quest for third ended three stages from the finish when his Ford Focus RS WRC 04’s engine failed.
"This event was very difficult for the engineers and technicians as we were driving on a new terrain," Sainz said. "We had quickly to find the most appropriate settings. It was also very tricky for the drivers due to the very narrow stages and the rocks interspersing on the sides."
"The turbo failed," said Martin of his engine failure. "It made a big hole in the housing and because oil was leaking onto the hot engine. Every time we tried to start the car, the turbo caught fire. We tried so hard to reach the next control point before exceeding the time limit but arrived there two minutes late and had to withdraw."
The only other works driver to finish was Ford's Francois Duval, nearly eleven minutes off the pace, and behind local driver Andrea Navarra in a privately-entered Subaru Impreza.
Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera and Subaru's Mikko Hirvonen experienced gearbox failures, both the Skodas failed as well, Armin Schwartz suffering a front suspension failure and Toni Gardemeister crashing on the first leg.