Loeb leads, Atkinson second
- 10th March 2007, 11:57am
After the icy asphalt of January's Monte Carlo Rally and February's snowy visits to Sweden and Norway, the WRC fraternity was keen to find some warm sunshine at last, as well as the pleasure of competing on gravel for the first time this year. As the inaugural loose surface fixture of the 2007 season, the Rally Mexico was also eagerly awaited by observers in order to gauge the relative strengths of the different cars on dirt, especially since two newcomers – the Citroën C4 WRC and the brand new Subaru Impreza WRC2007 – would be competing on the loose for the very first time.
As it turned out, the two new cars emerged as the early stars of Day 1 which took crews high into the mountains that surround the bustling industrial city of Leon and the colourful mining town of Guanajuato where Thursday evening's ceremonial start was held in front of a huge crowd.
Running sixth on the road, Petter Solberg profited from conditions swept clean by those running ahead of him to secure the fastest time on SS1 ahead of Sébastien Loeb, while the two World Champions' respective team-mates (Atkinson and Sordo) followed in 3rd and 4th places. The Norwegian then went on to win the morning's other two tests before competitors returned for service in Leon for the first time.
Meanwhile, the Ford camp – which lined up for the start with no fewer than nine Focus WRCs – always knew that the early part of the event would be tough for its officially nominated drovers. Thanks to their strong showings in Sweden and Norway, Grönholm and Hirvonen were forced to run first and second on the road during Day 1 in Mexico and, by the end of the opening loop of three stages, the two Finns trailed the provisional leader, Petter Solberg, by almost half a minute.
The second leg, which was essentially a repeat of the morning's run, put an untimely end to the exciting dual that was shaping up between Solberg and Loeb. With ground temperatures exceeding 30°C and a total distance of around 70km to cover with the same tyres, the majority of BFGoodrich runners chose the g-Force Gravel H1 (a wider tyre, nominated as a 'joker' option before the start), while Marcus Grönholm and Manfred Stohl both opted for the more familiar g-Force Gravel.
Loeb was fastest over the afternoon's first test, but Stohl was then quickest over the 30km of SS5 at a time when the battle between Solberg and Loeb was at its fiercest. It has to be said that this stage featured more soft ground than SS4 and SS6 and this tended to favour the 'conventional' BFGoodrich tyres. Over the group as a whole, however, the wider tyres proved the most effective choice and Marcus Grönholm slipped back to 6th place after SS6.
As in 2006, the promising clash between Solberg and Loeb came to a premature halt when one of the two duellists hit mechanical trouble. Some 12km from the end of SS5, the Norwegian's oil radiator began to leak and he was forced to park up his new Subaru on the road section between stages 5 and 6 with zero oil pressure. The incident handed the provisional lead to Sébastien Loeb who found himself 27 seconds clear of Chris Atkinson in the second works Subaru, who was himself tailed by Mikko Hirvonen (Ford/BFGoodrich) and Dani Sordo (Citroën/BFGoodrich).
"I haven’t had such a good feeling in the car for a long time, and the pace we’ve shown today is really good news for the whole team at Subaru,” Chris Atkinson said at the end of the leg. “Of course it’s unfortunate about Petter, but if you look at the whole picture it’s encouraging nonetheless. It’s a bit of a shame that we gave away a bit of time earlier today, but that’s just down to fine tuning the car.
“For some stages it’s been good, on others not so good, but that’s completely understandable when you consider how fresh this car is. We’re a little bit away just now, but improvements will come with experience and we’re learning more all the time,” the Australian added.
Rally of Mexico Positions after Leg 1 Pos Driver Make Time
1. Loeb Citroen 1h 21:48.3
2. Atkinson Subaru + 27.0
3. Hirvonen Ford + 27.4
4. Sordo Citroen + 31.7
5. Stohl Citroen + 41.2
6. Gronholm Ford + 43.4
7. Latvala Ford + 1:28.9
8. Wilson Ford + 4:07.5
Rally of Mexico
Positions after Leg 1
Pos Driver Make Time
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