Races in the World Rally Championship (WRC) aren't usually won from the front. Drivers first on the road lose far too much time 'sweeping' the stages clear of loose gravel and providing better braking and traction for those behind. But not Sebastien Loeb.
The seven-time world champion started Rally Italia on the island of Sardinia first and yet charged through the stages to land his second win of 2011 and his 64th triumph in the WRC.
'It was the first time we’ve been first on the road all the time, but finally there was a victory at the end,' said Loeb, who heads the WRC standings by seven points. 'I didn’t believe at the start of the rally that I could make it like this. I didn’t know what would happen after the first day but we weren't in a position to play a strategy so we had to push.'
Whoever leads the standings always goes first on day one so Citroen ace Loeb is well-versed in running first on the opening day of a rally. But the tried and trusted approach of drivers is to drop down the order on the day’s final stage to avoid going first again on the next day – in theory, evening up any lost time.
However, with Loeb’s chief title rivals Mikko Hirvonen, Jari-Matti Latvala, Sebastien Ogier and Petter Solberg all hitting trouble, Loeb was left with little option but to carry the lead into day two.
'I expected the others to be behind me but they had problems so I had to attack and take big risks,' said Loeb. 'The braking is especially difficult when you're downhill. You never stop when you turn and the car starts to oversteer, so you have to calm the car to keep it in a line. It’s very difficult and we really had to adapt to the conditions – we couldn't do much to the car.'
'Also, what we've seen before is that the surface on the second pass of a stage isn't as bad, but there are little cars coming behind and putting the gravel on the road so we're not sure where the line is. To win after such a big fight is really good.'
Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen, second behind Loeb in the drivers’ standings, took second and the closing Power Stage, which awards bonus points to the top three drivers. 'It’s been a really good weekend,' said Hirvonen. 'Even though we got a puncture earlier in the rally, I’m pleased and it’s great to get these three Power Stage points.'
Citroen driver Petter Solberg came third, in spite of dropping 40 seconds when his turbo-boost pipe came loose on stage two. 'Without this I would have won for sure,' said Solberg. 'We had the speed and the car to do it.'
Sebastien Ogier, winner of the last two events, was out of sorts on day one but fought back impressively only for his Citroen to suffer broken suspension on the penultimate stage. 'Fourth isn't bad. This rally has never been kind to me,' he said.