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GP Week : Issue 26
>>WRCNEW ZEALAND S EBASTIEN Loeb proved a point in New Zealand. He got both his revenge for his narrow defeat on the NZ event last year from Marcus Gronholm, and for suffering from Ford’s tactical approach to rallying. His win in New Zealand, however welcome, was not straightforward. It was thanks the culmination of drama right through the three-day event, in which he only held the lead after three of the 18 stages, and in which Fords’1-2 domination ended abruptly and humiliatingly on the penultimate stage. This was a rally that Ford really had to win, and maximise its championship points over Citroen, to retain any hope of winning the world title again. And it really looked like things would go their way … Loeb further proved that he is spending his time on the ragged edge of his luck. He had an off- road excursion on the first stage, but it was, somehow, damage- free. He apparently had a starter motor failure later that day, which actually served to favour his running order situation for Day 2. Exasperated by the way that Ford played the rule book to gain optimum starting order positions, he himself was forced to follow suit and slow down on the final stage of Day 2, forfeiting the lead he had only just gained. The pressure on him continued when he uncharacteristically made a driving error on the first stage of the final day, and it really looked like we would see a podium without him. Then the most amazing and unexpected fortunes came his way. Rally leader Jari-Matti Latvala damaged his car and retired, his rival Hirvonen was delayed with a puncture and an off-road excursion, and he overtook his team-mate Dani Sordo to take a most unexpected lead. Such is the way that even the greatest champions gain their success. The weather in New Zealand was the centre of the tactic problems. Heavy rains before the event damaged the roads, but when the rally world arrived in the South Pacific, a spell of good weather dried out the roads and the running order debate became serious. Anyone who was first on the road would suffer badly, anyone running many cars down the field had a ball. Henning Solberg, for an extreme example, ran well on Days 2 and 3 because he ran further back after delays on Day 1 with power steering trouble. He was the fastest driver overall on both the Saturday and the Sunday and won seven stages, more than anyone else. He had only previously scored one stage scratch time in almost the last six months... While New Zealand witnessed a furious battle between the Ford and the Citroen drivers, others were far behind. For a long time Francois Duval, substituting for the injured Gigi Galli in a Stobart car, held fifth place, before retiring on the penultimate stage, letting Petter Solberg a lonely and frustrated fourth in the new Subaru. Unlike his brother, Petter was unable to capitalise on his favourable starting position. Solberg’s Antipodean team-mate Chris Atkinson had a torrid event, crashing twice and retiring, leaving the privateer Urmo Aava to finish a splendid fifth in front of the two Suzuki SX4s, which scored their best team positions to date. Matthew Wilson had gearbox failure early on in the event but came back and made fast and safe times. Conrad Rautenbach was another penultimate stage retirement when he had engine induction troubles. Championship hopes look slim for Ford with two of Citroen’s favourite asphalt events (Catalunya and then Corsica) to follow in October, before the two remaining gravel rallies in Japan and Britain. No amount of clever tactics look capable of achieving their hopes of retaining the Manufacturer’s title for a third consecutive year. They need a major injection of good luck, which will inevitably mean correspondingly bad luck for their rivals. 39