Sébastien Loeb charged into the lead of RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España on Sunday morning as an inspired tyre choice reaped huge rewards.
Stage info: SS15/16
SS15: Riudecanyes 1, 16.35km
Best known for the famous roundabout at Coll de la Teixeta, soon after the start, where drivers complete a 360 degree doughnut in front of huge crowds packed on the hillsides. Much of the stage is downhill, and the opening part to Duesaigües is twisty and complicated. After passing under the landmark railway bridge, the road becomes flatter and faster, before skirting Riudecanyes reservoir and onto the finish.
SS16: Santa Marina 1, 14.50km
Santa Marina speeds from the start into Pratdip where a tight junction brings a switch from narrow and broken asphalt to a wider and smoother surface. Speeds rise further en route to Santa Marina, where the test passes the village chapel before a final twisty section up to the finish at Coll de Fatxes.
The asphalt roads near Salou dried quickly after overnight rain and the nine-time world champion was the only front-running driver to gamble on Michelin’s hard compound tyres as his rivals chose the softer option.
The Frenchman won both the Riudecanyes and Santa Marina speed tests in his Citroën C3, vaulting from third into a 7.1sec advantage ahead of overnight leader Jari-Matti Latvala.
“The information we had from the gravel crew and the weather team was right. The roads were drying and I knew if I used hard tyres in these conditions I could be fast. I think it was the right choice,” said the nine-time champion.
His rivals agreed. To a man, they said the soft tyres moved on roads that dried far faster than most expected due to a strong breeze.
Latvala struggled with understeer in his Toyota Yaris in the opener and was lucky to escape a big slide in Santa Marina. The Finn held off Sébastien Ogier, whose fight for championship points with Thierry Neuville became increasingly intense.
Neuville overhauled Elfyn Evans to close to within 3.8sec of the third-placed Frenchman, who did not enjoy the easiest time in his Ford Fiesta.
“I wasn’t so comfortable in the second stage so I need to change a bit the set-up for the second pass. Loeb went for the risk and it paid off. It was difficult for us to go for that crazy risk when you’re playing for the championship,” said Ogier.
Neuville was third in both tests in his Hyundai i20 but making no promises as to whether he could continue his strong start to the day and overhaul Ogier in the final two stages.
Team-mate Dani Sordo was up to fifth, 0.7sec ahead of Evans who conceded time to his rivals in both stages and dropped two places.