Belfast Telegraph

World champion Loeb is grateful for his Corking experience

By Sammy Hamill

Sebastien Loeb departed for Spain satisfied that his Cork experience had been "worthwhile" in preparing him and the Citroen team for Rally Ireland in November.

But it may all prove virtually worthless if the World rally champion doesn't win on the Costa Dorado this weekend.

Trailing Ford's Marcus Gronholm by 10 points with five rounds remaining, Loeb's title is in grave danger of departing France for Finland.

It is why he has targeted Rally Ireland, the penultimate round, as critical and why the final round of the Irish Tarmac championship in Cork was hastily fitted into his schedule less than a week before the Rally of Catalunya.

It, like Rally Ireland, is on tarmac (or asphalt as he calls it) roads, Loeb's preferred surface, as will the following round in Corsica. Then it is back to gravel in Japan, followed by the tarmac roads of Ireland before the season finale, Rally GB, in the Welsh forests.

With gravel specialist Gronholm likely to have the edge in Japan and Wales, Loeb must make his tarmac mastery count in Spain and Corsica to close that 10-point gap before he returns to Ireland for what he predicts could be the make or break event in his bid to be World champion for a fourth year in a row.

He and his Citroen team have made a massive effort to ensure they are ready for the World championship's first visit to Ireland by twice scheduling visits to our Tarmac championship.

Loeb won the Donegal International in June but he wasn't satisfied he had learned enough, hence the decision to return with young Spanish team-mate Dani Sordo for the two-day Cork '20'.

And in a stunning display, Loeb scored Irish win No.2 with Sordo in second place. But he says they gained more than just a one-two finish.

Admitting that he was still surprised by the Irish roads despite his previous experience, Loeb said: "In addition to winning, the most important thing about the weekend was the fact that it enabled us to do some excellent work in a competitive context..

"It gave us a valuable opportunity to test with Citroen Sport's engineers and technicians. Thanks to our Donegal, we had a fairly shrewd idea of what we would find but I was once again surprised by how difficult the stages were.

"The stages we contested on Saturday were apparently similar to what we can expect in the north, so it was very worthwhile coming to Cork."

And Sordo, who turned to his former Citroen junior team-mate Kris Meeke for advice, said: "As soon as we started the recce, I realised what a good idea it had been to come to Cork.

"More than our actual performance, we concentrated on getting a feel for the terrain. It is really very different from anything else I know."

He'll be on more familiar ground in Spain this weekend and, after an lacklustre first half of the season, Citroen will be looking to him to provide a crucial buffer between Loeb and the menacing Focuses of Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen.

"I will endeavour to finish ahead of Mikko and above all, Marcus," said Sordo. "The best way I can help Sebastien is by depriving his rivals of points. We know it won't be easy but I hope I will be able to profit from my good feeling on asphalt."

Citroen are also throwing Francois Duval into the mix in a Kronos Xsara and he led Rally Germany briefly before finishing a dutiful second behind Loeb.

Ford's young Finnish No.2 Hirvonen was also in Cork but his rally was compromised by an early puncture which cost him almost five minutes. But he quickly adapted to Irish conditions and was consistently third quickest behind the two Citroens before setting outright fastest time on the final stage.

Eamonn Boland is in the line-up which starts from Salou tomorrow, switching from the Subaru he drove to fifth in Cork to his Ford Focus and Shaun Gallagher has the opportunity to wrap up the JWRC rookie category in his little C2-R2 Citroen.

Belfast Telegraph


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