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GP Week : Issue 40
S EBASTIEN Loeb overcame the special challenge of running first car on the road on the very slippery gravel tracks in Portugal to Mikko Hirvonen once again. “I was on the limit nearly all the rally,”he reported. “The stages here are so tricky you never know where to brake or where to place your car in the corners.”Happily for him it all came good, once again. The rally was not, however, a foregone conclusion. Henning Solberg led after the opening Superpecial. When the rally arrived on the orthodox stages, Loeb made a little error on the very first stage which let Jari-Matti Latvala,, who was running seventh car on the road, taking the lead. Latvala made the most of his running place but then had a monumental accident from which he was lucky to escape unscathed. Dani Sordo went ahead briefly and then Hirvonen found himself in the lead – it meant he would be opening the stages on the second day. Loeb, in fourth place, was quite content with that. On stage nine of the Loeb went ahead and stayed there for the rest of the event. He started the final day first car on the road, actually an advantage because of the very penetrating dust, which slowed the cars behind. It all worked out well, a fair win with no need for the anticipated tactics, and an appalling blow to the confidence of Latvala, retiring from the rally on his birthday. When will things go right again for the 24 year old? And when will life go smoothly again for Ford? BP Ford is now 24 points behind its rivals Citroen Total in the Makes’ series and the season is only one third over... The star of the show was Marcus Gronholm, making his first appearance in a rally car in the 17 months. He drove the original prototype Subaru Impreza S14, now developed by Prodrive, with shock absorbers from the Ohlins company, and pristinely-prepared in the colours of the Turismo de Portugal Authority, sponsors of the rally. Marcus was lying second overall on the first day before he then crashed on the second day and retired His pace was an encouragement for Prodrive who had suffered so many earlier disappointments with their latest World Rally car design. Petter Solberg once again drove the eight year-old Citroen Xsara WRC and impressed, settling in to fourth place behind the two official Citroens and the remaining works BP Ford. Conrad Rautenbach was positioned to finish the best Citroen Junior Team driver, after Sebastien Ogier went off the road on the second day and when Evgeniy Novikov did the same on the final day. Then came reports that eighth-placed Rautenbach had also gone off at the same place! His C4 caught fire and was burned out. One of the happiest people on the planet throughout the event was Henning Solberg. On the Superspecial stage (run on a tarmac surface, although drivers had to use gravel tyres) at the very start of the rally, he made best time: “Me, winning a stage on tarmac! And what’s more, I even beat Loeb!” It kept him grinning all rally. And then, when the event came back to the stadium for a Superspecial at the end of the event, he posted fastest time once again! Henning struggled a bit during the rally proper, in sixth place behind his Stobart teammate Matthew Wilson. Wilson then went off the road on the final gravel stage, got back on the road again, but was forced to stop with clutch failure. Novikov’s misfortune brought a remarkable achievement for Norway. The finishing order was Petter, Henning and then Mads Ostberg, in 4th, 5th and 6th outright. The hard dusty tracks of southern Portugal created devastating havoc for the drivers. It had already been dusty during pre-rally recce and drivers had endless stories of making bad pace notes because they did not have a clear sight of the stages beforehand. The dust became particularly bad for the competitors on the final day of the rally, in the still air of Sunday morning. It was the one disappointing factor in a most enjoyable event, which was already full of interest even before the FIA President Max Mosley rolled up mid-event and issued policy statements about the future of the sport .... 42