INTERNATIONAL MOTORSPORT: Argentina provides the true test
THE fifth round of the World Rally Championship, the Rally Argentina, took place last weekend and the extended event proved to be tough for many of the crews. Special stages of more than 66km were the longest since the 2002 Safari Rally and meant that drivers and co-drivers had to be at maximum concentration levels for anything between 38 and 43 minutes, almost unheard of in present-day rallying.
The Ford Fiesta WRC of Jari-Matti Latvala was being driven by Dani Sordo, who is usually behind the wheel of a Mini, but following Latvala's cross-country skiing accident the Finn's broken collar-bone ruled him out of the event and put Sordo into the seat.
It was business as usual following the qualifying stage, with the Citroëns of Sebastien Loeb and his teammate Mikko Hirvonen holding the first two positions, followed by Sordo and the second works Fiesta of Petter Solberg in fourth spot.
But it was Solberg who led the rally on Friday morning. After SS3 his lead was 20.1 seconds over Hirvonen, with Sordo third and Loeb back in fourth, having suffered several spins that cost him time in the stage.
Everything went wrong for Solberg in SS4 when his sump hit a rock. He drove on for a further 10km until the steering arm snapped in mid-air on a sixth-gear crest. The car went off the road, hitting another rock with the front right. Despite quick work from Solberg and co-driver Chris Patterson when they fitted a spare arm carried in the car, it was all to no avail as they found that the final impact had broken the opposite side steering arm as well. Solberg restarted the rally under Rally 2 rules on Saturday morning in 11th position, having incurred a 15-minute penalty for the stages not completed the previous day. Loeb headed the leader board at the end of day one with his teammate just 0.1 seconds behind and Sordo clinging to third.
Saturday's early stages allowed Loeb to increase his lead, but he almost lost it all in SS9 when he also fell victim to a sump rock that nearly ended the day for the Frenchman. Solberg was piling on the pressure to try to get into the points with the aim of limiting the damage to his championship chances. Fastest times on several stages resulted in him moving steadily up the score sheets.
It is always worrying when two teammates start fighting for the lead and the battle between Loeb and Hirvonen was reaching an unacceptable risk area for Citroën team manager Yves Matton, who issued team orders telling the two to hold station for a Citroën one-two on the podium. Third-placed Sordo was a minute and a half behind Hirvonen, so the leading duo was looking very comfortable.
With the Citroëns taking the two top steps on the podium, the rally produced a final sting in the tail for the Ford team when Sordo had to retire at the start of the final stage due to alternator failure. He had held third place from the start of the event, a cruel blow for the Spaniard. It meant that Norwegian Mads Ostberg in the Team Adapta Fiesta moved up to take the final step on the podium.
After his disaster on Friday, Petter Solberg finished sixth, having won 11 of the nineteen stages and all of the final days stages. Let us hope that the Ford team's luck will change.
It was another great drive from Sebastien Ogier in the VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000, who fought a tremendous battle with his teammate, Andreas Mikkelsen, who unfortunately dropped out due to mechanical failure. Ogier came home just behind Solberg in seventh place. It is the third time he has finished in the points and bodes well for VW's entry into WRC next season.
Loeb heads the championship with 91 points, followed by Solberg on 73 and Hirvonen third with 70. Ostberg's result in Argentina places him in fourth spot on 68 points. The sixth round of the WRC will be the Acropolis Rally on May 25.
While we are on the subject of rallying, it looks as though 2012 could be the last year that the Rally GB is hosted by the Welsh city of Cardiff. Changes to the route schedule and problems with double bookings for the Builth Wells Royal Welsh showgrounds, which last year provided a central service park, are feeding the rumour that this is the final Cardiff event.
Many other venues are waiting in the wings to host the rally, including York, Newcastle, Gateshead and Carlisle, but the favourite appears to be Sunderland, which has money available to run the prestigious event.
Finally, I think all of us who watched the Bahrain Grand Prix were intrigued by the events that followed Sebastian Vettel's victory. I refer to the fact that Vettel was told to pull over and stop the minute he took the checkered flag - what was the reason? So far no one is telling, although Vettel himself referred to the tyre degradation he had suffered and that he was glad that there was not a 58th lap. So are we expected to believe that it was a problem with the tyres, or far more likely that the Red Bull was running out of fuel and may not have made another lap or met the minimum weight requirement at the end of the race? My bet's on a lack of fuel.
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