SPORTS

World champion wins record fifth race in a row at the Acropolis Rally

World champion Sebastien Loeb became the first man to win five successive races with his victory in the Acropolis Rally yesterday. The Citroen driver, who won the day’s second stage, finished one minute 36.2 seconds ahead of Finn Toni Gardemeister in his Ford. Loeb extended his lead in the drivers’ championship and now has 23 points more than Norway’s Petter Solberg, whose driveshaft problems on Friday meant he could manage only ninth place. «Five successive victories and six since Monte Carlo, it’s great,» said Loeb. «I owe this to all of the team who gave me a superb car and to Michelin as well. Our tires allowed us to dominate the course,» added the Frenchman. Solberg was left to rue his ill fortune. «It is a rally to forget as quickly as possible,» he said. «The title? There are still eight rounds remaining but something has got to happen for us to be able to chase Sebastien and Citroen.» The next rally is in Argentina in July. Loeb’s overall time of four hours 12 minutes and 53.7 seconds was one minute 36.2 ahead of Toni Gardemeister in his Ford. The Finn drove superbly to hold off the challenge of former world champion Carlos Sainz in the other Citroen, who had started the day just 7.7 seconds behind. «It was definitely maximum attack this morning,» said Gardemeister, who won the day’s opening stage. «I had an excellent tire choice and the car was perfect. I tried to drive in the clean line on the road and eased off a little when I saw Carlos’s split times were slower. But it’s harder to drive slower because I lose my rhythm when I drop my speed. It’s hard to fight someone as experienced as Carlos but we did it. Now we have to turn second place into a win in the second half of the season.» Sainz, filling in for accident-prone Belgian Francois Duval for the races in Turkey and Greece, can now return to retirement after successfully defending his third place. The 43-year-old Spaniard’s six points enabled Citroen to leapfrog Peugeot in the manufacturers’ standings. They now have 84 points, five more than their rivals. Peugeot’s top-placed driver was Marcus Gronholm, the main challenger to Loeb until he ran into driveshaft problems, but he managed to hold on to fourth spot. Mikko Hirvonen threw his Ford around the course in storming fashion to win the last two stages and take fifth place ahead of fellow-Finn Harri Rovanpera in his Mitsubishi. Loeb is now a clear favorite to retain his world crown although he cautioned against over-confidence. «I never feel invincible,» he said. «It’s necessary to carry on working hard and make sure everyone stays motivated because one day the others will come up again to the level.»