Solberg secures hat-trick

Petter Solberg sealed his fifth World Rally Championship victory of the season and his third consecutive win after storming home on the final leg of this weekend's Supermag Rally Italia Sardinia. The Subaru ace finished over two minutes ahead of points leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen). Ford's Markko Martin retired with engine problems to promote Citroen's Carlos Sainz to third

Solberg secures hat-trick

Subaru's Solberg set the tone of this weekend's inaugural rally in Sardinia on the very first stage of day one by beating his nearest rival by 16.9s. It was a welcome boost to the Norwegian who thought his role as second road sweeper behind Loeb on the first day would put him at a disadvantage.

By the end of the first leg Solberg had an overnight lead of 30.3s over his nearest challenger Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm while Loeb was 4.5s off the Finn's pace. This was despite suffering a puncture while running on the first stage and overheating problems with his cooling system and engine on the second and third stages.

Three stage wins out of six on the first day was clearly not enough to satiate the Norwegian's hunger. On the second leg he scored an incredible six stage wins out of seven, Gronholm the only driver to spoil his party on SS11 while staging his recovery from engine problems.

What was a 30-second lead over Gronholm at the start of the day became 71s, but this time it was Loeb who had moved up to second after Gronholm's engine difficulties on SS7. Despite the dropping back of Gronholm the last person Solberg wanted to see move up to second spot was championship points leader Loeb, despite him being so far behind. The Frenchman had moments of excellence and two stage wins during the rally, but the Citroen driver was content to keep it cool and simply drive for a finish.

Solberg kept up the pressure on the third and final leg of the weekend taking four stage wins out of six to finish over two minutes ahead of Loeb, but the prize was just two more points than Loeb, who has a 26-point lead in the title chase with 30 points left to play for.

The odds are stacked so high against the Norwegian overhauling the Frenchman, but Solberg clearly has a point to prove as 13 stage wins out of 19 this weekend testifies.

"There is a very, very small theory that we can still do it," Solberg said. "But we have to be realistic. The whole team is realistic. It will be difficult on asphalt, but on gravel we're very quick."

Solberg and Loeb may be smiling for different reasons, but Ford's Martin had nothing to be happy about this weekend. The Estonian struggled on the tight and twisty roads and commented on the challenging nature of the new rally. But it seemed he had overcome his problems when he moved ahead of Sainz for the final podium slot on SS15 after a rare mistake by the Spaniard.

But it was short-lived for Martin retired on the next stage with engine problems. While he was able to nurse his car back to the finish he was unable to fix the problem without a proper service. Sainz was promoted to third, his sixth podium finish of the season.

"We were in a good position to finish third," said a disappointed Martin. "Our tyres were chosen with the final stages this afternoon in mind and I think we would have taken third, but the turbo failed. It made a big hole in the housing and because the oil was leaking onto the hot engine, every time we tried to start the engine the turbo caught fire."

The star of the rally, though, had to be privateer Andrea Navarra in the 2003-spec Subaru Impreza WRC. The Italian moved up into a points-scoring position on the third stage of the rally and throughout the remaining two days gradually eased himself up the order to fourth overall after a string of impressive stage times.

Ford's Francois Duval was never at the sharp end during the weekend action. The Belgian was often in no-man's land unable to catch those ahead but in no way threatened by those behind him. A lonely rally was nevertheless rewarded with four points after finishing fifth overall.

Also flying the flag for the privateers was Gigi Galli in the Mitsubishi, who finished sixth overall, two spots ahead of the third privateer in the points this weekend Antony Warmbold in the Ford Focus, who picked up the final point.

After his engine problems Gronholm staged an admirable fight-back to rescue two points with seventh place in the Peugeot 307.

"It's been a tough, frustrating and disappointing rally," Gronholm admitted. "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 307WRC has the pace to win on gravel, and now I am looking forward to proving its pace on asphalt on the next two rallies in Corsica and Spain."

It was a disappointing weekend for Skoda coming just days after it announced it would be taking part in the 2005 championship. Toni Gardemeister retired on the very first stage after crashing out while team-mate Armin Schwarz broke a steering arm on the second leg. He was able to finish the stage at reduced speed but then his wishbone, damaged in the original accident, broke and forced him out of the rally.

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Day 3am: Solberg pushes on
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