WRC Update: Soldberg Excluded, Olier Wins
October 3rd, 2011
Solberg’s car, run by Citroen’s semi-works PH Sport outfit, was weighed three times and on each occasion registered 1196kg, four kilogrammes under the regulation minimum 1200kg Representatives of the Petter Solberg team were given the opportunity to explain the discrepancy but after deliberation the Stewards decided to exclude the car from the results. Solberg’s team elected not to appeal the decision, which means all the drivers that finished behind Petter in the classification move up one place.
The 2011 Rally of France had already proven to be not what was expected because while a Citroen DS3 may have won the 2011 Rally of France at the weekend ( 30 Sept - 2 October 2011) after a thrilling and historic battle, it was not the expected Citroen at the front, with Sébastien Ogier taking the top step of the podium after championship leader Sébastien Loeb retired on day one and while Citroen continue to lead the manufacturers' title chase, the Drivers' Championship leader Sébastien Loeb had both his team mate and Ford's Mikko Hirvonen only three points behind him with just two rounds in the 2011 WRC season to go until the exclusion of Solburg.
The event was historic because, with Ogier's win following from his victory in Germany, Loeb's domination of tarmac events in the World Rally Championship has well and truly ended and Citroen's toughest competition came not from Ford, as it has for the better part of a decade, but from a new challenger, Mini, which set its first fastest stage time and, for a period on day two, lead a WRC event for the first time. The strength of Former Citroen driver, Dani Sordo, in the Mini further toughens the challenge Loeb faces in clinging to his slim Championship lead.
On Day One Sébastien Loeb was the first to go for it and in the Klevener vines (SS1), he set the quickest time and took the lead in the rally. His team-mate, Sébastien Ogier, fought back immediately in Ungersberg and closed the gap to Loeb to a tenth of a second! The rally was turned on its head in Pays d’Ormont, the stage that had helped Loeb to consolidate his victory in 2010. This year, however, the seven-time world champion saw his hopes go up in smoke. At the 27 kilometer mark, a warning light came on showing an oil pressure fall in the engine. After stopping to check the situation, the current leader of the world championship had to retire with engine failure.
“There’s never a right time for something like this to hit us, but it’s the last rally in which I would have wanted it to happen,” said Loeb. “I didn’t feel it coming. There’s not much to be said. It really is a pity as I felt pretty good. The car was pleasant to drive and I liked the stages. Even if my rivals in the world championship still have a long way to go, for me coming away empty handed doesn’t help my chances in the drivers’ title chase. I’m going to have to fight hard in the last two rallies of the season if I want to win my eighth world crown.”
When the crews came back to the Zénith in Strasbourg for the midday service halt, Sébastien Ogier was in the lead with 5 seconds in hand over Petter Solberg.
“Seb’s retirement isn’t good news for the team. Now there’s a bit more pressure on our shoulders. We’ll have to score a big haul of points in the context of the Manufacturers’ World Championship. Things went off pretty well this morning even if I’m still not completely flat out.”
Dani Sordo, Petter Solberg and Sébastien Ogier went at it hammer and tongs in the afternoon loop finishing in that order.
“I’m not all that happy as I had the impression that something wasn’t working properly on the car,” said the Citroën driver after the finish of the leg. “The team checked it during the service halt and everything’s normal. The gaps are still very small and we’re only three seconds behind Dani. It’s not over yet by a long chalk and I’ll have to push really hard tomorrow to get back in front.”
Ogier's fear about the health of his Citroen DS3 was confirmed overnight to be unfounded paranoia, with the Citroen team shipping Loeb's engine back to its Paris HQ and spending the night stripping it down to find the fault.
“The early analysis shows that an assembly error could be the cause of the problem that hit Sébastien,” explained Xavier Mestelan-Pinon, the Citroën Racing technical director. “So we’re not too worried about the reliability of the other two DS3 WRCs that are still running.”
So, with the health of his DS3 confirmed, Sébastien Ogier started the second leg in third place 1 second behind Petter Solberg’s DS3 and 2.8 seconds adrift of Dani Sordo, leading an event for the first time in a Mini. After a long liaison stage that brought the crews to the Colmar region, the day got off to a great start for the Citroën driver who set the fastest time in the Hohlandsbourg stage (SS9). He did the same thing again in Vallée de Munster (SS11) and reclaimed the lead in the overall classification. Petter Solberg lost forty seconds in the same stage because of a puncture dropping the Norwegian out of the battle for the lead. Dani Sordo was very much at home on this terrain and the Spaniard hit back in the Grand Ballon stage (SS12) and went back into first place by just 2/10s before the midday remote service halt.
“I’m very happy with my morning. We really enjoyed driving on these stages even if I was a little off the pace in Grand Ballon. Dani is very quick and it won’t be easy to catch him on this type of terrain, all the more so as we’re not pursuing the same objectives,” explained Ogier at the Colmar service halt. “I’m pushing hard and I’m not taking too many risks as I have to make sure I score points for the Manufacturers’ Championship.”
Ogier reeled off three fastest times on the trot in Hohlandsbourg, Firstplan and Vallée de Munster dominating his rival during the afternoon. He also set another quickest time in the city stage in Mulhouse, which increased his lead to 9.5 seconds.
“Finally, I was really able to go for it during the afternoon. The roads were in a better state than yesterday so it was easier to push,” said the overall leader. “We’ve managed to open up a small gap over Dani, but we can’t simply try and hold on to our first place if we want to win this rally. The last stage is quite unusual, only forty timed kilometers, no service halt and short stages with a lot of gravel. It’s not going to be all that easy, but we’ll do our best to offer the win and the points that go with it to the whole team.”
Compared to the two long stages on Friday and Saturday the third day of Rally France Alsace was a sprint.
The crews left the Strasbourg parc fermé at 6h20 and covered two loops of three stages without a service halt. The leg measured only 42 kilometers and looked like a stroll in the park, despite which Sébastien Ogier knew that he couldn’t afford to lift off until the finish as his lead over Dani Sordo was less than ten seconds. The first stage was in the Bischwiller gravel pit posing a singular challenge as the first half was run on gravel. Ogier lost 3 seconds to Sordo on the 5.52-km eighteenth stage.
“We hesitated for a long time about our tyre choice in the service park and finally we opted for hard rubber,” explained the Citroën driver. “We knew that I’d lose time in Bischwiller but our choice was better adapted to the summer conditions we would meet further on.”
It was the right way to go as the DS3 WRC driver was on equal footing with his rivals in the following stages. Ogier held on to his short lead over Sordo and then set the fastest time in the Cleebourg vines (SS22). The rally ended with the Power Stage in the streets of Haguenau. The Citroën Total World Rally Team driver set the third-quickest time scoring an extra point:
“Our decision to go for hard tyres didn’t pay off as we spent a lot of time in the regrouping park before the stage, I finally set off on completely cold tyres and I wasn’t able to do any better.”
By scoring 26 points in this rally Ogier is back among the front-runners in the Drivers’ World Championship:
“It’s been a very long rally as I carried the responsibility for the whole team on my shoulders. I’m just happy to be able to relax. Obviously, this victory means a lot to me from a personal point of view. Five wins in a season is already a pretty good achievement. I’d like to thank the team which gave me a perfect car. Congratulations also to Dani Sordo; he drove really well all weekend and it wasn’t easy to beat him.”
Frédéric Banzet, the Automobiles Citroën General Manager was also delighted that the French make had won its home rally again: “Sébastien Loeb was unlucky and it’s great that Sébastien Ogier was able to take up where he left off and win. The end of the season is going to be a bit stressful, as our aim is still to win the two championships. We’ve made another step towards the manufacturers’ title as our main rival reduced our lead by only two points.”