Loeb leads after first four stages of Rally of Finland
Frenchman denies rumours about loss of motivation as he goes in search of a fifth successive WRC title
Frenchman Sebastien Loeb (Citroën) clocked the quickest time in the opening special stage of the Rally of Finland, raced in the surroundings of the city of Jyväskylä.
After the opening day, the Citroën team enjoyed a 1-2 lead, for Daniel Sordo of Spain came home only 0.3 seconds behind his teammate Loeb, whose time was 1:20.5.
Ford pilot Mikko Hirvonen of Finland took a share of third position, despite lightly bumping into the railings along the way. Hirvonen and Subaru ace Chris Atkinson of Australia trailed 0.4 seconds behind Loeb.
After the closely contested opening day, Hirvonen’s teammate and countryman Jari-Matti Latvala was in sixth place with 0.8 seconds separating him from the leader.
In the N-group Finland’s Juho Hänninen held the lead, followed by Simone Campedelli of Italy and another Finn Jari Ketomaa.
In the Juniors Martin Prokop of the Czech Republic was in front after the opening day.
Loeb has dominated the rally scene for four years now. This season he has made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes, which have prompted speculation that the Frenchman’s motivation may have started fading, especially after the retirement last year of his closest rival Marcus Grönholm of Finland.
Loeb, however, scotches such rumours. “When the race starts my motivation is the same as before. I want to win.”
But the Frenchman also admits that testing the vehicle is hard. “It has never really been my passion”, Loeb points out.
“But I am still testing as much as before, or at least as much as the rule book permits.”
“I drive more tests than our other factory driver Dani Sordo. Though testing the car is not always pleasant, I am aware that success in the races depends on it.”
The weekend’s Rally of Finland is the season’s ninth World Rally Championship race. It presents an interesting challenge to the seemingly invincible Frenchman. Loeb is yet to win in Jyväskylä.
“Of course I would like to win here, but I also have to remember the Championship situation”, Loeb says.
If Loeb wins this year’s WRC title, he will become the first driver to do so five consecutive times. Loeb and Finland’s Tommi Mäkinen are the only two drivers who have managed to clinch the title four times in a row.
After the first half of the season Loeb remains three points behind Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen in the drivers’ standings.
“I am not surprised by the results Hirvonen has produced. Already last year he always steadily finished the races tucked in behind me and Marcus.”
“But even faster than Mikko is Jari-Matti Latvala. His speed is at Grönholm’s level, but he takes more chances to get there.”
Though Loeb is currently three points behind Hirvonen, the rest of the season looks good from the Frenchman’s point of view. After Jyväskylä, three of the remaining six rallies are raced on asphalt, on which Loeb is practically unbeatable.
This morning’s second special stage, the 11.38 km Mökkiperä section, saw Jari-Matti Latvala crash out into a ditch after jumping a crest.
A suspension problem had caused one of the front wheels to lose its tracking. Latvala and co-pilot Miikka Anttila escaped the accident unhurt.
Latvala may yet re-enter the race on Saturday under the Superally rule.
FRIDAY, 12:27 - After four morning stages on Friday, Loeb had extended his lead to 6.6 seconds over second-placed Hirvonen.
Loeb was narrowly fastest through all four stages, and the pair have already opened up a sizeable gap on the rest of the field - Sordo is in third, some 22 seconds behind the leader, while Estonian driver Urmo Aava is currently a further six seconds adrift in a privately-entered Citroen C4.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Jari-Matti Latvala becomes youngest driver to win WRC race (11.2.2008)