From Citroen Press [ 14/03/2004 ].
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After their outstanding start to the season with wins in the first two rounds of the 2004 World Rally Championship season in Monte Carlo and Sweden, the Championship's debut round in Mexico has reminded Citroën just how unforgiving rallying can be, but a third place for Carlos Sainz was just enough to keep Citroën in second place for manufacturers' title chase and Citroën's Loeb is now first equal in the drivers title race. It all started to well for the team, with Sebastien Loeb in the lead at the end of day one, with two fastest stage times to his credit, and Carlos Sainz placing his Citroën Xsara WRC in a solid third place.
It all started to well for the team, with Sebastien Loeb in the lead at the end of day one, with two fastest stage times to his credit, and Carlos Sainz placing his Citroën Xsara WRC in a solid third place. Loeb took over the lead when spectators pushed Petter Solberg's Subaru into the service area, breaking the 'no outside help' rule and incurring Solberg a five minute penalty. Not that Loeb was expecting to be in the lead on day one. His wins in Europe meant that he was first on the road and provided him, he thought, with the unenviable job of being the road sweeper, pushing all the loose gravel off the road.
"Last night's rain cancelled out the 'sweeper' role that I might have had to play, as I was first on the road," said Loeb at the end of day one. "I don't think I lost any time due to that, except perhaps in SS3, when I also lost a few seconds by stalling in a hairpin. Despite some small brake problems, which meant that the pedal was a bit 'long' towards the end of the special stages, it has been a good day."
Mexico is 2004's first debut event and presented the teams with a host of challenges and more than just unknown terrain. The stages are more than 1000 metres higher than any previous World Championship Rally, providing a challenge not just for the engine builders, who have to provide power units that allow for much less oxygen in the air, but also for the aerodynamicists, who have work with thinner air flowing over the wings.
For Sebastian Loeb, he had the advantage of doing the event last year before its elevation to world status, although while the stages were the same as last year, they ran in the reverse direction this year.
Unfortunately all of Citroën's planning and Sebastien's experience came to an end five kilometres into stage six, the second stage of Day Two.
"Coming out of a very fast corner, the car took off," Sebastien explained, "Where it touched back down, the road was cambered, with, in the middle, a rock solidly set in the compacted earth. The sump guard was smashed upwards into the engine sump and the oil emptied out of the damaged sump."
What happened next was inevitable: a drop in oil pressure, a damaged engine, and retirement.
"Of course, this is a great disappointment," Sebastien continued. "We were leading, setting our pace on that of Markko [Märtin]. Yesterday, Petter's problems put me in the lead. Today, I'm the one to suffer bad luck. The outcome of a rally sometimes depends on fate. You have to learn to accept it."
Carlos, meanwhile was having his own battles, not with stones, dirt and dust, but with red tape. To cut costs, the number of tyres that drivers can use is limited this season and a list of tyres used during the event by each driver is kept by the organizers. But a slip-up in the paper work meant that Carlos had to drive more than 77 km of competitive mileage on tyres that were well past their use-by date.
And, as if this wasn't enough for the Spaniard, one of the tyres had a puncture on the very first stage. Replacing it, he battled on until one of the other tyres could take no more, so he was then forced to pull out the puncture tyre, which had, by now, remarkably fixed itself and partially reinflated thanks to Michelin's inventive ATS self repairing tyre system, and fit it back on to the Xsara.
"Starting off on the third loop, I did my best to get rid over any pressure from the 'tyre incident'," explained Carlos. "I tried to go as quickly as possible while managing the tyres' wear rate. Today, the rally has had its fair share of surprises. It could be the same again tomorrow. Nothing is over yet - it is still all to play for!"
A remarkably relaxed comment indeed from Carlos Sainz, considering his own problems and the demise of his team mate now placing the entire role of scoring points on his shoulders.
So, Calos Sainz went into the final day in a reasonably comfortable second place, 14 seconds off the leader Marko Martin in his Ford Focus, but with a comfortable 18 second lead over third placed Duval in another Focus. Things could only get better and so it seemed Carlos putting a fast time on the second stage of the day. Things went very differently on third stage of the day though....
The shortest stage of the day saw three cars from three different manufacturers finish within a tenth of a second of each other, a remarkable result. Unfortunately, Citroën was not one of those car makers. Pushing hard for another fastest time, Carlos did a multiple roll in the Xsara. But the strength of the car and Carlos strength of will meant they lost just one minute and 20 seconds and one place.
So at the finish, Carlos was the only non-Ford driver on the Podium, earning points, but not enough to stop Ford taking over the lead in the manufacturers' championship. Marko Martin's win in Mexico, along with points scored in Sweden and Monte Carlo, means he now shares the driver's Championship lead with Citroën's Sebastien Loeb.
So, with the World Rally Championship heading for New Zealand in the middle of next month there is still very much everything to play for and no team can say they've got a lock on the 2004 World Rally Championship.