Loeb crowned champion
|Sunday, October 17th 2004, 12:26 GMT|
Sebastien Loeb became the first French World Rally Champion in a decade after he finished second behind Ford's Markko Martin, who scored his second victory of the season in the Rallye de France.
The Ford Focus machines of Martin and Francois Duval dominated the event from the start and the pair battled for the lead until the first stage of the final leg this morning when the Belgian was forced to stop with a blown engine. After that all Martin had to do was bring the car home to win his first event since the Rally Mexico in March.
But the Estonian didn't just 'bring the car home', instead he continued to set a blistering pace to win both of this afternoon's stages, taking three out of four for the day.
With the exception of Duval's disappointing demise – the Belgian was on for a career best finish in second – this was as comprehensive a team performance as we have seen in the World Rally Championship this year.
Loeb put in a mature performance en route to the title. Never out of the top three, his second place came courtesy of Duval's engine. But throughout the rally the young Frenchman resisted the temptation to go for a glorious win on home ground, and instead did just enough to avoid trouble and take the crown.
Loeb knew heading in to Corsica that he needed to finish fourth or better to win the championship. He established himself early-on as the fastest non-Ford driver, and, when he realised the Focus cars were out of reach he didn't take the bait and concentrated on third place. His task was made a little easier when it became clear that chief title rival Petter Solberg was off the pace in his Subaru.
With Citroen team-mate Carlos Sainz riding shot-gun in fourth place for much of the rally, Loeb knew all he needed to do was keep it tidy, stay out of trouble and get to the end. That he did. Consummately.
Sainz eventually finished third to help ensure that Citroen secured the manufacturers' title after a quiet rally. The Spaniard finished ahead of Marcus Gronholm who grumbled at regular intervals during the event about the unpredictable weather conditions and the handling of his Peugeot. Given his unhappiness, the Finn did well to finish fourth, his 307 proving 1m37s faster than Solberg's Subaru over the 12 stages of the Tour de Corse.
Solberg had it all to do coming into the event. He needed to win, or finish second without Loeb scoring. By the end of the first day however the world champion was sixth and dropping back.
The second leg was no better, and the Norweigen was mystified by his lack of pace. By the end of SS8 he was 4m30s off the lead and a miracle was clearly required. It never came. His pace returned briefly this morning when he won the first stage of the day, SS9, but by then the championship was all but lost.
Finishing sixth, and surely staking his claim to that unfilled second works Subaru seat for 2005, was Stephane Sarrazin. The French former Formula 1 driver was brilliant on the punishing asphalt of Germany and shone even brighter on the roads of Corsica. The privateer Subaru driver ran well inside the ranks of factory drivers throughout the event and impressed mightily, it would be interesting to see what he could do on looser surfaces.
Freddy Loix brought the second of three factory Peugeots home seventh (the third was crashed on the second leg by Cedric Robert) ahead of the Skoda drivers Armin Schwarz and Toni Gardemeister. Mikko Hirvonen was a distant tenth in the second factory Impreza.
Last year's championship went down to the wire between Petter Solberg and Sebastien Loeb, and while the Norweigen deserved the crown, Citroen tied his hands by insisting the Frenchman ensure a finish to secure the makes' title. This year Loeb's early season dominance and consistency was two much for Solberg's brilliant late-season charge to overcome. But even while Solberg was winning, Loeb was concentrating on finishing.
Now its all over and the gloves will be off. And with two events in Spain and Australia still to go and nothing but pride to play for, it will be fascinating to see which one of them emerges quicker.