French champion leads top-four sweep and BP Ford Abu Dhabi duo salvage fifth and sixth at Rally Bulgaria.
Loeb and Citroen outclass field
Citroen completed their domination of Rally Bulgaria yesterday as Sebastien Loeb emerging a comfortable winner and the constructor scored a 1-2-3-4 finish for the first time in 17 years. Loeb, the six-time world champion, cruised to his 58th career victory, which gave the Frenchman a 51-point lead over Sebastien Ogier at the top of the drivers' championship. Citroen's top-four sweep was the first since Toyota achieved it in 1993. Entering the final day with a handy 40.5 seconds lead over factory teammate Daniel Sordo, Loeb eventually triumphed by 29.5secs.
Those two were followed by Petter Solberg (36.3secs) - who is a privateer racing in a Citroen - and Ogier (1min 55secs) from Citroen's junior team. BP Ford Abu Dhabi's drivers had to settle for fifth and sixth, with Mikko Hirvonen more than three minutes behind Loeb, and Jari-Matti Latvala a further minute back. "It's been perfect," Loeb said. "A very good first day, then the second day had difficult conditions; it was important to just keep the rhythm and not make any mistakes, not take any risks."
Hirvonen, who missed out on the 2009 title to Loeb by a single point, is now 65 points behind the Frenchman, in third place in the standings. A rally victory is worth 25 points. The Finn is looking for home comforts at the next rally after his fifth-place finish, which saw him struggle on the asphalt track. The World Rallying Championship (WRC) returns to gravel with the Rally Finland on July 29, the Finn is hoping to close the gap on Loeb at home. He earned 10 points for his finish yesterday.
"Fifth brings good points for the team, but I hoped for more," Hirvonen said. "Now I'm looking forward to my home rally in Finland later this month where I want to fight for a win. "I had a good feeling with the car and enjoyed the stages, which were extremely fast in places. But the times weren't as good as we hoped, so we have to keep working hard to improve. With no chance of moving up, we tested a few things for future rallies [yesterday]. It was better and I think we learned something that will help on the remaining asphalt rallies."
Latvala, who is fourth in the championship table with 80 points, also said he could take some positives out of the weekend in Bulgaria. "It was a difficult weekend, but I had a clear run and made no mistakes," he said. "I can take confidence from finishing after my retirement in Portugal on the last round." However, Malcolm Wilson, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally team director, did not attempt to hide his disappointment.
"We completed intensive testing during the summer and after all the hard work we hoped for better from this rally," he said. "However, I'm pleased to see that Jari-Matti has improved his pace on asphalt and that's a positive to take away from here with three more asphalt rallies to come." Loeb won five of the 13 stages and began with four from four on Friday. Sordo, his understudy at Citroen since 2007, admitted it was impossible to keep pace with him. "Beating Sebastien is just not possible because he has been the fastest from the very first stage," Sordo told the official WRC website. "I have thought about trying to beat him for the past four years but he's really, really hard to beat because he is perfect on every stage. I try to get quicker and quicker all of the time, but I know it won't be easy.
"Helping Citroen with the manufacturers' championship is always the most important thing on every rally and that is my priority." * Compiled by Ahmed Rizvi, with agencies