Loeb claims 50th WRC win in Cyprus
|By Matt Beer||Sunday, March 15th 2009, 10:22 GMT|
Sebastien Loeb has clinched the 50th victory of his incredible World Rally Championship career by holding off Mikko Hirvonen in Cyprus.
Petter Solberg completed the podium, and was overjoyed to take his outdated Citroen Xsara to third in only his second event as an owner/driver.
Despite being highly disgruntled about having to use gravel tyres on Friday's asphalt stages, Loeb vowed to make an early break and established a one-minute lead by half-distance.
Although Hirvonen managed to reduce the gap to just 27.2 seconds by the finish, he could not stop the Citroen driver continuing his domination of the 2009 championship.
"It's incredible. I remember when I beat the record of Carlos (Sainz) and Colin (McRae)," said Loeb. "Now 50 is a really a big number, a nice number. I'm really happy with what we are achieving at the moment, but it's not finished, we're not stopping yet."
It was another frustrating event for Ford, as Hirvonen lost a lot of time on Friday while struggling to adapt to the gravel tyres on tar, and Jari-Matti Latvala lost 20 minutes in a ditch on Saturday morning.
Hirvonen picked up speed once the event switched to gravel, taking second place from Citroen's Dani Sordo and closing on Loeb, but it was too late to challenge his nemesis for victory.
"I think we lost it on Friday," said Hirvonen, who is now eight points adrift of Loeb in the standings. "At least we managed to take some time back on these two days.
"If it had been dry, it might have been different. We are definitely a lot faster on gravel now so hopefully we can have a good fight in Portugal."
Solberg also got quicker and quicker as the event progressed, moving up from an early sixth place to catch and overhaul Sordo for third on the penultimate stage.
"I was so happy to win the first stage in Norway but this is just amazing," said the delighted Solberg. "I'm really, really happy."
With Solberg not registered for manufacturers' championship points, Citroen ordered Sordo not to fight too hard to hold on to third.
"We saw they were faster than me and from the middle of the (penultimate) stage I decided to slow down because I preferred to take fourth and the points for the manufacturers' championship," said Sordo. "Better to slow down than to not get the points."
The fight for fifth came to a dramatic end when Citroen Junior's Sebastien Ogier crashed out less than a kilometre from the finish. Ogier had recovered from a Saturday roll to take fifth from Stobart Ford driver Matthew Wilson when the Briton stalled on the penultimate stage.
But Wilson fought back by setting the joint fastest time on the final stage of the rally, and Ogier went off while trying to respond.
"I couldn't have gone any faster," said Wilson, who upheld Stobart honour this weekend after team-mate Henning Solberg had a collision on the road section prior to SS1.
"I tried as hard as I could. That stall in the second to last stage cost us 10s so the plan was just to go for it. The pressure obviously got to him."
Conrad Rautenbach therefore moved up to sixth place in the remaining Citroen Junior car, with Evgeny Novikov having crashed the squad's third C4 this morning.
As Citroen Junior's weekend fell apart, Federico Villagra (Munchi's Ford) and Khalid Al Qassimi (Ford) were able to pick up the final points.
There was heartbreak for long-time Production class leader Armindo Araujo when his Ralliart Italy Mitsubishi developed gearbox problems with two stages to go, denying Araujo his first win and allowing Patrik Sandell to take a second straight victory for Red Bull Skoda.
Nasser Al-Attiyah looked set to challenge Sandell but his charge was slowed when his Subaru started to overheat this afternoon, leaving him third behind Araujo.
Martin Prokop took an easy Junior WRC win. Only three cars made the trip to Cyprus, and Prokop's rivals Michal Kosciuszko and Aaran Burkart both hit trouble on Friday morning.
Pos Driver Car Time 1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 4h50:34.7 2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 27.2 3. Petter Solberg Citroen + 1:49.4 4. Dani Sordo Citroen + 2:26.3 5. Matthew Wilson Ford + 6:41.0 6. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen + 11:11.9 7. Federico Villagra Ford + 13:18.5 8. Khalid Al Qassimi Ford + 13:44.1 9. Patrik Sandell Skoda + 19:36.6 10. Armindo Araujo Mitsubishi + 19:54.9