Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen completed a dominant 1-2 rally win for the Citroën World Rally Team in Rally New Zealand on the weekend. There was a minor fight with Ford’s Jarri-Matti Latvala on the opening day, but the rally soon became the plaything of the unstoppable Citroëns.
At least this time Loeb and Hirvonen were able to fight freely for the win. Mostly, after a good battle on day two, the team asked their two drivers to concentrate on the double podium in the closing stages of the event. With that came Loeb’s fifth win of the year and an ever tightening grip on the driver’s championship.
The eight-time world champion now has 145pts, which puts him 38pts clear of Hirvonen, with Solberg 55pts behind the leader. Unsurprisingly, with a 96pt lead over Ford, Citroën appears unbeatable in the manufacturers’ title race.
Speaking after the rally Loeb said he’s looking forward to a well earned rest: “We had to hold out to the end after an exciting two-day battle with Mikko. Once again, conditions were difficult but we managed to secure a one-two finish. I’m very pleased that I can go on holiday now with a comfortable lead in the championship! It’s true that the first half of the season has been fantastic, with five wins out of seven rallies.”
For his part, Hirvonen is ready to building on a steady opening to his Citroën career: “This is another good result for the team; it concludes the first part of the season, during which I have learned a lot. I am pleased with how the first seven rallies have gone. I have been fighting for the win a regular basis, and that feels good. I now have a fine collection of runner-up spots, so I’ll be going into the second half of the season hoping to claim some wins.”
The WRC goes into hiatus for all of July and returns for Rally Finland in August.
A lengthy press release from Citroën can be read after the break and is complemented by over 25 pictures from Rally New Zealand. We thank Ateco Automotive for access to the shots.
Citroën dominates Rally New Zealand to win 1-2
Eight time world champion, Sébastien Loeb has recorded his third win in New Zealand and his 72nd career victory after the Citroën team dominated the 2012 Brother Rally of New Zealand to with a 1-2 win for Loeb and his team mate Mikko Hirvonen at the weekend (22-24 June 2012).
Despite an early threat from Ford’s Latvala, the Citroen team took control of the event on day one with first Hirvonen taking the lead and then Loeb climbed the leader board to take a 6.4 second lead at the end of day one. Allowed off the leash to fight each other for the lead on day two, Hirvonen looked like he could take Loeb several times during the day but the Frenchman held on to the lead as the two Citroen’s stretched their lead out over third place Petter Solberg, who was now leading the chasing Ford pack after Latvala got entangled in a wire fence and lost four minutes before he could be cut free by a Kiwi farmer. While Solberg was an ever present threat on day two, he could not narrow a more than 90 second gap between his Fiesta and the two Citroen DS3s out in front, and for this reason on the final day Citroen’s team boss instructed his drivers to concentrate on a 1-2 finish to avoid any costly mistakes, especially as conditions on the stage were worsening.
Thus Loeb was able to take his fifth win of the 2012 season, cementing his lead in the drivers’ championship title chase with the 1-2 pushing Citroen further into the lead in the manufacturers’ championship. Loeb now leads Hirvonen 145 points to 107, with Petter Solberg in third place with 90 points, while Citroen leads Ford with 237 points to the British team’s 144 point total.
Featuring over 200km of timed stages, including the legendary Whaanga Coast test, the first leg of Rally New Zealand turned out to be full of incident. After both produced flawless performances, the Citroën Total World Rally Team crews quickly took the top two positions. On the day’s final stage, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena grabbed the lead from their team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who had led the rally for most of day one.
Just four seconds separated the two DS3 WRCs at the end of Friday’s leg.
The competitors left Auckland Waterfront before sunrise, as they started the rally with a long road section to Raglan, 170km to the south. As long as the second and third legs combined, Friday’s itinerary was based around a loop featuring the Te Hutewai, Whaanga Coast, Te Akau South and Te Akau North stages. The midday service period was scheduled remotely in Raglan, which meant that the mechanics could only use spare parts stored on board the rally cars.
Based on the weather forecast provided by Météo France, which suggested the stages would be mostly damp, the Citroën crews opted to fit Michelin Latitude Cross soft tyres for the morning. Mikko Hirvonen grabbed the lead after winning the Whaanga Coast (SS2) stage in the mud and rain. Then Sébastien Loeb responded to his team-mate’s efforts to go quickest on both Te Akau stages. As the crews reached the midday service period, the Finn led the Frenchman by less than four seconds.
“We made the right choice in deciding to go first and use soft tyres,” confirmed Mikko. “But you can see that the choice of starting position hasn’t had a radical impact on the outcome of the race, since Latvala is less than 15 seconds behind,” added Seb. “The rally could become increasingly about strategy, because our ten soft tyres may not be enough if it continues to rain.”
The second loop turned out to be almost identical to the first, with Mikko Hirvonen unbeatable on Whaanga Coast and Sébastien Loeb unstoppable on Te Akau. The eight-time World Champion snatched the lead from his team-mate after SS8: “I really had to fight to grab the lead from Mikko, who was particularly quick in the mud. We made different choices in terms of the tyres, as I combined four hard and two soft tyres, whereas he had taken six soft tyres. I don’t know if it was the best option, but it meant that I kept two soft tyres for the rest of the rally.”
“Seb undoubtedly made the better tyre choice for the afternoon; in any event, I couldn’t hold him off on SS8,” admitted Mikko. “I’m pleased with how things went today. I had a lot of fun driving on these magnificent stages and we had good pace, which has helped us to move clear of the rest of the field. We’re now at the half-way stage, but we’re going have to manage the rest of the rally carefully. Managing the weather and making the right tyre choice remain the keys to success.”
“From the engineers to the drivers, and not forgetting the guys monitoring the weather and the mechanics, the entire team produced an excellent performance today. We weren’t sure that we had made the right choice, but it is clear that we have a very successful day,” stressed Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “I don’t think that the race is over, however, because it may yet come down to how the ten soft tyres allocated to each driver are managed. You must remember that we are competing in what is in reality a winter rally with the same equipment that we had a few weeks ago in Greece! The time differences can disappear just as quickly as they appeared, so we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal.”
The Citroën Total World Rally Team’s DS3 WRCs continued to lead the race throughout Saturday’s leg. Separated by just 6.4s after 352 kilometres of timed stages, the Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen crews are well placed to make it three one-two finishes in a row for Citroën.
Day two of Rally New Zealand began with a long road section to the north. Concentrated on roads between the Wairoa River and Whangarei harbour, the day’s seven stages totalled 143 kilometres. Like Friday, the midday service period was limited to tyre changes and any brief repairs that could be done in the fifteen minutes available. As the rainfall of the last few days had left the stages damp, tyre choice was crucial when the drivers left Auckland. Mikko Hirvonen, like most of the drivers, opted for five hard Michelin Latitude Cross tyres. Sébastien Loeb chose to fit his car with two hard tyres at the front, two soft tyres at the rear, and take two hard tyres as spares.
All eyes were on Petter Solberg, who chose to go with five soft tyres. Despite winning SS9, the Norwegian was unable to make up a significant amount of ground on the two Citroëns during the morning. Sébastien Loeb was quicker than Mikko on the first two stages, extending his lead to 8.5s after SS10. Mikko Hirvonen eroded most of Seb’s lead, however, on ‘Girls High School 1’ (SS11): as the crews reached Whangarei for the midday service, the Finn trailed his team-mate by just 1.7s!
“This stage is among my two or three favourites,” confirmed Mikko. “I pushed without making any mistakes; I don’t think I could have gone any quicker. I’m really enjoying scrapping with Seb. We are having a lot of fun on these fantastic stages.”
“Once again, Mikko was very quick in the muddier sections and it was too late to react when I realised my pace wasn’t aggressive enough,” admitted Seb. “But this was a battle between team-mates, so I wasn’t going to run the risk of making a mistake by being over-zealous!”
All the drivers fitted hard tyres for the afternoon loop, made up of four stages. With two stage wins on SS12 and SS13, Sébastien Loeb put a little breathing space between himself and Mikko Hirvonen. He also went quicker than his team-mate on SS14, but Mikko refused to let anyone else claim the stage win on ‘Girls High School 2’. The two DS3 WRCs arrived back in Auckland with just 6.4s between them. “What a great battle today!” beamed Mikko. “It’s fantastic to be able to push hard on such beautiful roads in a fast and reliable car. Once again, we are perfectly placed to secure a one-two for Citroën. That would be the perfect outcome.”
“Mikko just kept pushing, yesterday and today,” added Seb. “It was difficult this afternoon, it was very slippery because there was some rain but we were driving on hard tyres. But we managed to stay on the road and maintain a comfortable lead over Petter Solberg. The final day looks like it will be exciting!”
“I had decided to let our drivers battle it out for first place, because there was a real risk that Petter Solberg might make a comeback,” explained Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “He didn’t make the most of his tyre choice, however, and the gap settled at around one and half minutes. Although the final leg only features 60km of timed stages, we won’t get carried away. The weather could change again, and tyre choice might once more become very important. I have therefore asked our drivers to make sure of the one-two finish.”
Featuring 61 kilometres of timed stages – i.e. less than 15% of the overall distance – the final day of Rally New Zealand was a little less taxing than the first two days. As expected, it was raining heavily in Auckland as the drivers had to choose their tyres. The Citroën Total WRT drivers’ choice of tyres was largely informed by the fact they had already used the ten soft tyres available to them for the entire rally. Sébastien Loeb opted to take four new hard tyres and two soft tyres that he had already used, whereas Mikko Hirvonen went for the opposite choice.
Located around sixty kilometres to the north of the service park, the Burnside/Wech Access and Puhoi stages had no significant impact on the overall standings. The morning’s loop ended with the Auckland Domain super special stage, held in the city’s oldest park. Before the Power Stage (Burnside/Wech Access 2), the second section featured the Auckland Domain and Puhoi stages, and then the Ahuroa test. Once again, the Citroën drivers opted for different tyres: five hard Michelin Latitude Cross tyres for Mikko Hirvonen and a mix of three hard tyres and two soft tyres for Sébastien Loeb.
Obviously, attention focussed on the final stage, where additional points were available for the top three times. Sébastien Loeb grabbed the third fastest time, giving him a total of twenty-six points at this rally.
“We had to hold out to the end after an exciting two-day battle with Mikko,” said Loeb, who now boasts 72 career world championship wins. “Once again, conditions were difficult but we managed to secure a one-two finish. I’m very pleased that I can go on holiday now with a comfortable lead in the championship! It’s true that the first half of the season has been fantastic, with five wins out of seven rallies.”
Mikko was pleased to have finished in a good position again despite having to cope with less suitable tyres than his rivals throughout the final day: “It wasn’t a very exciting day, but we had to stay focussed to avoid making a mistake. This is another good result for the team; it concludes the first part of the season, during which I have learned a lot. I am pleased with how the first seven rallies have gone. I have been fighting for the win a regular basis, and that feels good. I now have a fine collection of runner-up spots, so I’ll be going into the second half of the season hoping to claim some wins.”
“This leg was easier to manage than we feared,” concluded Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “The grip was relatively good on the stages and the tyres we fitted were reasonably well suited to the conditions. Like Seb and Mikko, my assessment of the first half of the season is positive. In terms of the reliability of our drivers and the DS3 WRCs, our tactics and tyre management, we’ve just completed three rallies without making any mistakes. We will arrive at the start of Rally Finland with a comfortable lead in both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World Championship standings. That means we’ll be able to relax a little, which is essential if you are going to go for the win there.”
2012 Brother Rally of New Zealand
- Loeb / Elena Citroën, DS3 WRC 4:04:51.2
- Hirvonen / Lehtinen, Citroën DS3 WRC +29.6
- Solberg / Patterson, Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1:36.4
- Novikov / Giraudet, Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2:13.6
- Neuville / Gilsoul, Citroën DS3 WRC +2:42.4
- Sordo / del Barrio, Mini John Cooper Works WRC +3:03.1
- Latvala / Anttila, Ford Fiesta RS WRC +4:52.9
- Araújo / Ramalho, Mini John Cooper Works WRC +9:36.4
- Block / Gelsomino, Ford Fiesta RS WRC +10:30.3
- Stohl / Minor, Ford Fiesta RS WRC +11:26.3