Loeb wins gripping Tour de Corse

Loeb wins gripping Tour de CorseFrom Chris Biewer [ 09/04/2006 ].
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Sébastien Loeb again won the Tour de Corse. It is traditionally a good event for French car manufacturers and also for Loeb (and not for Subaru, in contrary to what that manufacturer claimed in press releases before the event).It is Loeb’s 23rd world championship rally victory, pulling level with Juha Kankkunen. For Loeb it is only his 2nd victory on the tricolore island, but he confirmed his first drivers title here with 2nd place in 2004. And tricolore island is a fitting description. Corsica is a massive, bright red rock with barely any vegetation, lined with white beach in the clearest blue sea you have ever seen. And since it is not so realistic, nor desirable to turn the whole island into one massive tunnel, every single piece of road is naturally a winding, bizarre cliff hanger!

Talking of the Tour de Corse being a traditionally good event for Subaru, err for French cars, look at PSA’s record since the start of the millenium: In 2000 Carlos Sainz in a Ford joined the podium behind a Peugeot 1-2. In 2001 a PSA podium lock out, Puras in the Citroën beating Peugeots of Panizzi and Auriol. In 2002 a Peugeot podium lock out. 2003 was Pirelli weather, a bit of a PSA nightmare with only Sainz in the Citroën on the podium, 2nd. 2004 saw victory for Märtin in a Ford, but Citroën and Peugeot took the next 3 places. And 2005 saw the first Corse victory for Loeb in the Citroën. And before the close of the 2006 event we again have 3 Citroëns and 3 Peugeots each inside the top10. Already at the hight of group B the French wrote a good tradition. Peugeot won here with the 205 T16 and Bruno Saby in 1986. In 1985 and 1982 the island belonged to Renault and Jean Ragnotti in the mighty R5 Turbo. In the 1970s Peugeot got some class wins and amazing top10 results with Hannu Mikkola and Timo Mäkinen in a 100BHP(!) Peugeot 104 ZS shopping trolley, while Renault Alpines were the dominators. Renault’s R8 Gordini dominated the island in the mid 1960s. And Citroën put their name on the winners list in 1961 and 1963 with the famous DS.

 

 

SS9 

 

The day kicked off with the Coti Chiavari to Pietra Rossa stage. This stage is one of the most classic and most unique stages of world championship rallying. 24km is very short for Corsica, where every single road on the entire island makes a superb stage. But despite the “short” distance, this stage has an amazing variety and always changing rythm. We start at the Cote Chiavari beach front South of Ajaccio. The road is very wide and flowing, cutting possible, lined by unique cork trees. The trees are not as soft as their wine bottle cork coating may implement, as Colin McRae found out in a Focus a few years ago. Miracle enough to find a tree on Corsica, “Corsica once had a tree, then came Colin McRae”. The road keeps winding up a toll road. At the top there is a “turn (junction) hairpin right” and you go downhill along the cliffs, all the way with a beautifull view of deep blue Mediterranean Sea. The last 6-7km then are untypically remote from any hills and between open fields. For the wide, flowing start and the finish between the fields, this stage gives the Sunday a faster nature than the Tour de Corse normally is. Yesterday average speeds of the fastest WRCars were only at around 85km/h. 

 

On SS9 Loeb won the stage, but with Grönholm only 0.5s behind. But for 3rd place there is still a massive fight. This was the fight of the event and possibly of the season. Mikko Hirvonen lost 3rd to Daniel Sordo only on the last stage of day2. On this first stage of day3 Hirvonen posted the 3rd fastest time behind the untouchable duo at front and such Hirvonen came to within 0.4s of Sordo! At the start of the previous day 3rd place was still in the hands of 307 driver Alex Bengué, who had a massive spin on the last stage yesterday. Since then Bengué even has to defend his 5th position against Loeb’s team mate Xavier Pons. On SS9 Bengué and Pons were tied and the gap stayed at 8s. 

 

SS10 

 

At 32km Pont de Calzola to Agosta is a decent stage for a Sunday. This will also be the last stage of the 2006 Tour de Corse later today. It is a very typical stage for Corsica. This means we finish the rally in style and with lasting memory for the drivers. Corsica is clearly the most bizarre location for a world championship rally. Corsica is best discribed as a bright red rock dumped into deep blue Mediterranean Sea. There are cliffs everywhere, no trees, and for Corsicans it is normal to stand up a rough cliff so high you are in snow, but you can look down at people bathing on the plain white sand beach straight below you. No joke, a few hundred metres from the beach you can be at 3000metres above sea level, and the contrast of the bright colours only add to this mystique, bizarre place.  

 

It is exciting to finish the rally with such a long stage. There could still be room for drama. But the main attraction of this stage along the Corsican D302 road, the famous Sollacaro Jump, has been removed on base of stage length rules. Generally it is a shame that world championship rallies have been shortened like this. People say there is hardly any point for a 3rd day, we may as well get rid of it. Well, in contrary, if we had 7-8 stages on the Sunday, like in the old days, there would be a point and excitement for a last day. 

 

However any rally comes to a close at some point. In this case the guys who had their positions most under threat responded well and things seem to settle with 2 stages to go. When in SS9 Hirvonen came to within 0.4s of Sordo, in SS10 Sordo won the stage and put a more comfortable 7.7s between him and his rival. Xavier Pons could have threatened Alex Bengué’s 5th place after the latter’s spin last “night” and the pair were tied on stage time in SS9. In SS10 however Alex in the 307 doubled the gap between him and the Xsara pilot to 16s. 

 

Further down the field Gigi Galli could not build on his form. By the end of leg2 Galli started to post times faster than the other 307s and faster than the Subarus, proving a point for Pirelli. However on the first 2 stages of the last day, Galli managed to pull clear of Jan Kopecky, but he did not manage to come any closer to Sarrazin in the leading Subaru. In contrary, Solberg made an impression and is tied for 10th with Kopecky, just behind the Pirelli 307. 

 

SS11&12 

 

A repeat of SS9&10 above. Loeb cruises to victory in save mode, losing an affordable 11secs to Grönholm. The battle for 3rd was exciting, but the most gripping stuff happened further down the order. On SS11 for 3rd Hirvonen narrowed the gap to Sordo to 5.2s, while Ford took a 1-2 on that stage! But in the last stage Sordo responded once more and made sure of his 2nd successive podium finish. In the battle for 5th Alex Bengué beat Pons by nearly 9s on the last stage and confirmed this position. Meanwhile Solberg had a spin in SS11 and some mechanical problems in SS12. Before the last loop Solberg and Kopecky were tied for 10th, but the Solberg/Subaru combination kept themselves outside the top10. Galli had many eyes on him, what he could prove for Pirelli. Galli had a bit of an inconsistant rally, but he describes the 307 as “12 out of 10” and reminds that he hasn’t done an asphalt rally for 6months. In the last stage Galli showed promise again, clearly beating every other Pirelli car. 

 

Drama we saw in the JWRC. Early leader Kris Meeke retired during leg2. This left Urmo Aava in a massive 2 ½ minute lead. But we promised the last stage was a mamuth and it was Aava to prove this point. His Suzuki developped engine problems on the very last stage, handing yet another victory to the French cars: Brice Tirabassi in a Citroën C2 take the laurels. Amazingly as well Martin Prokop in another C2 has last stage dramas, an off. Prokop was leading the S1600, not to be confused with the JWRC. Now both categories go to Tirabassi. 

 

For the unofficial, provisional Tour de Corse 2006 results, check here:  

 

http://www.rallye-info.com/event.asp?event=420