Ireland key to title hopes of Gronholm and Loeb
In just over a month's time Sebastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm go head-to-head on Rally Ireland in their battle for the World title.
It is a Citroen v Ford battle that leader Gronholm says is 'too close to call.'
He heads to Japan next week with a four point lead over World champion Loeb, then it is back to Europe for the final two rounds in Ireland and Wales.
The organisers of Ireland's first-ever round of the World series yesterday announced day the maximum 90-strong line-up which will contest the four-day event starting on November 15, headed by the C4 Citroens of Loeb and Dani Sordo and followed by the Ford Focuses of Gronholm and team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, the soon-to-retire Finn was admitting he had 'no idea who will be World champion.'
Gronholm, a two-time champion, led the standings by 10 points after beating Loeb by seven-10ths of a second in the WRC's closest-ever finish in New Zealand last month.
Loeb's back-to-back wins on the tarmac of Spain and Corsica in the past fortnight have now brought him back onto Gronholm's tail with just three rallies remaining.
"It will be really tight for the next three rallies and I have no idea who will be world champion," said Gronholm as he prepared to leave for Japan.
"A four-point lead is nothing, especially with three rallies coming."
He was relieved to at least finish second to Loeb on the Tour de Corse at the weekend, having been pushed back to third by Citroen No.2 Sordo in Spain.
"I could not do better, but Japan will be really hard now," he said.
"Winning there would help me a lot."
Despite ultimately winning by 23 seconds, Loeb said the Corsican event had been a stressful experience.
"It wasn't a particularly restful weekend and we didn't get off to the best of starts," he reflected.
"However, along with the technical team, we responded well after making some small adjustments to the set-up of our C4.
"I felt much happier with my car from Friday afternoon on and that enabled us to take the lead, pull clear and ultimately win.
"We left Corsica with two more points than our rival in the drivers' championship and the last three rounds promise to be very exciting indeed."
One of those rounds, of course, will be in Ireland - an asphalt round, sandwiched between the gravel of Japan and Wales, that Loeb has readily admitted is crucial to his hopes of remaining champion for a fourth year in a row.
The two C4 Citroens and the two M-Sport Ford Focuses will head up the starting list in Ireland followed by the Kronos Citroen Xsara of Austrian Manfred Stohl then the Prodrive Subarus of former World champion Petter Solberg and his Australian team-mate Chris Atkinson.
Two more Fords from the Stobart team for Finn Jari-Matti Latvala and Norwegian Henning Solberg, Petter's elder brother, complete the top 10 ahead of a third works Subaru of Spaniard Xavier Pons and the second Kronos Xsara of Belgian tarmac ace Francois Duval.
The Irish challenge is headed by Ulster Rally winner Kris Meeke in a Subaru S12 at 18 with Gareth MacHale, a regular in the series until he crashed heavily on the Rally of Italy in Sardinia earlier in the year, at 19 in his Ford Focus.
Reigning Irish Tarmac champion Eugene Donnelly starts at 21 in a Skoda Fabia with former champion Andrew Nesbitt at 23 in a Subaru.