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Hat trick extends Loeb’s WRC lead


Is he unbeatable over a rally distance?

Sebastien Loeb’s rivals must be asking themselves that after the Frenchman won his third World Rally Championship event of 2009, in Cyprus last weekend.

He can be beaten on special stages – it happened last weekend and he didn’t win one special stage on the final day – but by then he had done the damage.

Loeb’s Citroen C4 WRC led the mixed surface rally – one day on sealed roads and the next two on gravel – from start-to-finish.

On Friday, he adapted best of any driver to running on gravel tyres and with a gravel set-up on tarmac roads and built a lead of almost a minute.

Mikko Hirvonen came home second in the BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS, with privateer and former world champion Petter Solberg a sensational third in a three-year-old Citroen Xsara.

Solberg won two stages on Saturday and caught and passed Citroen works driver, Dani Sordo, on the final day.

Malcolm Wilson finished fifth in the Stobart Ford Focus.

The works Fords won all three stages on the final day, Hirvonen taking the first two and teammate Jari-Matti Latvala dead-heating with Wilson to win the third test.

Once the event switched from tarmac to twisty and rocky gravel tracks high in the Troodos Mountains on Saturday, torrential rain turned some of the roads into a mudbath. 

Conditions were so tough on Saturday that the Ford works mechanics removed 95kg of clinging mud from Hirvonen's car during the lunchtime service break.

Hirvonen found driving on tarmac with a gravel set-up and gravel tyres difficult on Friday, and finished the day third behind Loeb and Sordo, 60.2s adrift of the lead. 

But during the next two days on gravel, he beat Loeb on six of the eight stages, overtook Sordo and moved into second place, eventually finishing 27 seconds behind Loeb.

"I lost my chance of victory on Friday morning because I didn't drive well enough," he said.  "Once the rally moved on to gravel I was faster than Loeb and that's a big boost as there are now seven consecutive loose surface events to come. 

“On the wet and muddy roads our pace was pretty much equal, but on the drier sections I was quicker and it's a shame that the heavy rain fell when it did. 

"I made some small mistakes with my car set-up because I tried to be too clever.”

Latvala was only 3.4 second behind Hirvonen when he beached his car in sand on the inside of a corner in Saturday's second test. 

He had to run one kilometre to find enough spectators to lift the car out and fell from fourth to 25th.  He fought back and scored two points for Ford in the manufacturers’ championship.

Results of the Cyprus Rally
1.  S. Loeb/D. Elena, Citroen C4, 4h 50m 34.7s.
2.  M. Hirvonen/J. Lehtinen, Ford Focus RS, 4h 51m 01.9s.
3.  P. Solberg/P. Mills, Citroen Xsara, 4h 52m 24.1s.
4.  D. Sordo/M. Marti, Citroen C4, 4h 53m 01.0s.
5.  M. Wilson/S. Martin, Ford Focus RS, 4h 57m 15.7s.
6.  C, Rautenbach/D Barritt, Citroen C4, 5h 01m 46.6s.
7.  F. Villagra/J Perez Companc, Ford Focus RS, 5h 03m 53.2s.
8.  K. Al Qassimi/M. Orr, Ford Focus RS, 5h 04m 18.8s.
9.  P. Sandell/E. Axelsson, Skoda Fabia, 5h 10m 11.3s.
10 A. Araujo/M Ramalho, Mitsubishi Lancer, 5h 10m 29.6s.

Championship points standings
Drivers’:  S. Loeb, 30; M. Hirvonen, 22; D. Sordo, 17; H. Solberg, 10; P. Solberg, 9; M. Wilson, 8.       
Manufacturers’: Citroen Total, 48; BP Ford Abu Dhabi, 32; Stobart VK M-Sport Ford, 22; Citroen Junior, 11; Munchi's Ford, 3.

Next round: Rally Portugal, April 2-5. First round of the Pirelli Challenge in which Kiwi Mark Tapper is competing.


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