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GP Week : Issue 37
S UPERHUMAN Sebastien Loeb leapt further than ever into uncharted career territory when he celebrated his 50th World Rally Championship victory in Cyprus, 20 more than his nearest rival, Marcus Gronholm. On the first mixed surface World Rally in 13 years, the Frenchman also mastered a controversial single-tyre rule. Competitors had to use gravel tyres, even on asphalt stages. Sebastien pulled out an early lead which stood him well later on, when he drove gravel stages in unfavourable conditions, as first car on the road. Changing conditions made the gravel roads tricky. Ford’s number two driver Jari- Matti Latvala slid off the road for over 20 minutes, and two of the three Citroen Junior drivers retired after going off the road as well. Latvala’s misfortune was a terrible blow for Ford’s championship hopes but opened the door for the privateer Xsara WRC of Petter Solberg to score the first non-works podium for a driver in over three years. Citroen came to the rally resplendent in a new colour scheme and revised corporate logos and really looked exciting, but there were no technical developments, either for them or their rivals at Ford. After an exciting but rather frustrating 42 Rally Norway, Subaru’s rallying exile Petter Solberg once again drove his black and silver eight-year old Xsara, (looking visually dull in comparison with the newer C4s) and his storming drive in the later stages of the event really brought a sense of fun to the occasion. After finding the challenge of the asphalt stages difficult to master on the Friday, Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen drove as hard as he dared later in the event, bearing in mind he needed to have a top finishing position. Eventually he got ahead of Loeb’s teammate Dani Sordo, who was then also passed by Solberg, but in the end Citroen scored 16 championship points from this event, where the odds had been strongly in favour of Ford, who scored 10. The effect of Latvala’s problems was evident. There was never-ending debate before the event concerning the tyre regulations, but rally organiser Takis Kyriakides leapt at the FIA’s offer to run a mixed surfaced event (asphalt on Day 1, gravel on Days 2 and 3). “Not all our roads are strong enough in bad weather for double usage, especially when we were to run Production Car and Junior category, and the mixed formula meant that nearly all the gravel stages need only be used once.” Teams however complained that this involved extra cost to bring additional freight and agreed with the remarkable idea that gravel tyres should be used throughout! Drivers complained to the FIA, who then redirected their concerns back to the people who agreed to this idea … their bosses! In the battles between the subsidiary Citroen and Ford teams, Petter Solberg’s remarkable third place stole the headlines but Matthew Wilson drove strongly to resist the challenge of Sebastien Ogier, who went off the road on the final stage. There were promising performances from both Evgeniy Novikov, who on the second day was holding fifth place, and Conrad Rautenbach, who finished sixth. The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team had an early disaster, when a local driver swung his vehicle into the path of the approaching Focus of Henning Solberg. Henning missed all the opening day’s activities. Munchi’s driver Federico Villagra had a consistent event to finish seventh, ahead of Khalid Al Qassimi, who was badly delayed by handbrake problems. Citroen Total now lead BP Ford by 48 points to 32, while Sebastien Loeb leads Mikko Hirvonen 30 to 22. In three weeks time the teams meet again in Portugal, an all-gravel event and another rally where, in theory, Ford should do well.