World champion Loeb sets hot pace to seal Cork 20 win

IT’s easy to see just why Sebastien Loeb is the World Rally Champion, thousands of spectators had first hand experience over the weekend as he set a scintillating pace in the Murphy Construction Cork 20 International Rally.

Loeb and co-driver, Daniel Elena (Citroen C4) finished two minutes and 21.5 seconds ahead of teammates, Dani Sordo/Mark Marti (Citroen Xsara) with Mark Higgins/Rory Kennedy (Subaru) a distant third.

Eugene Donnelly/Paul Kiely (Subaru) were fourth and took their fourth successive Irish Tarmac title.

Loeb’s Citroen was in a different zone right from the opening stage where he took a 12.3 second lead over his team mate, Dani Sordo. Mikko Hirvonen’s first taste of competitive action in Ireland saw him occupy third — 11.6 seconds behind with Eugene Donnelly (Subaru) heading the charge of the Irish Tarmac Championship regulars. Donnelly was already 30.6 seconds off Loeb’s pace.

Just 11 cars got through the stage as Patrick Elliott crashed out.

Loeb stretched his lead on SS 2 where Sordo was second quickest. Hirvonen lost over four minutes when he had to stop and change a punctured wheel. Mark Higgins moved ahead of Donnelly and into third, the latter enduring a small spin. Eamonn Boland was fifth but was concerned about a vibration in his Subaru.

On the repeat of the two stages, Loeb was untouchable and led Sordo by 42.3 seconds, the leader remarked that he was trying various suspension settings and was quite happy with the results.

Higgins remained in third, having built a lead of over 20 seconds on Donnelly, but he lost the spot when his Subaru punctured on SS 4. Donnelly traversed most of the stage with the brake pads jammed against the disc.

Gareth MacHale increased his pace and slotted into fifth ahead of Tim McNulty, who made adjustments to the settings of his Subaru. On the afternoon loop of stages, Cill na Martra and South Lake Road, Loeb thrilled the vast crowds with a seamless performance.

By SS 6, his lead over Sordo had passed the minute mark. In the chase for Tarmac Championship, Higgins moved ahead of Donnelly despite some understeer trouble.

McNulty, Boland and Aaron MacHale were next with Hirvonen back into the top 10, he was eighth from fellow Focus WRC pair, Ray Breen and Michael Barrable.

Ending the day with a lead of one minute and 29.3 seconds, he had a smile for the M-Sport boss, Malcolm Wilson and joked, “I wasn’t even pushing”. Sordo completed the final test without any brakes, yet he was still second quickest. Higgins retained third but Donnelly had closed to within 5.1 seconds. Boland ended the day in fifth as Hirvonen slotted his Focus into sixth place. Aaron MacHale, Michael Barrable and Group N leader, Colm Murphy occupied the remainder of the top 10. Gareth MacHale lost considerable time when his Ford Focus broke a driveshaft and he ended the leg in 16th. Denis Cronin (gearbox), Keith Cronin (electrical) and Brian O’Mahony all crashed out.

Yesterday’s slippery opening test near Buttevant provided little encouragement for Loeb’s rivals as he guided the Citroen C4 through the tests with consummate ease.

Mark Higgins maintained third throughout yesterday’s stages, the performance of his Subaru much improved after it was re-mapped. He finished 43.4 seconds ahead of Eugene Donnelly, who sealed a fourth successive Irish Tarmac Championship title.

Mikko Hirvonen was fastest on the last stage and took fifth from the Subaru pair, Eamonn Boland and Tim McNulty, the later fortunate to survive an altercation with a bank on SS 9 that later claimed Denis Biggerstaff’s Subaru. Ford Focus trio, Aaron MacHale, Michael Barrable and Gareth MacHale completed the top 10.

The Group N category was won by Colm Murphy (Subaru), who also clinched the category in the Irish Tarmac Championship, he finished ahead of Kevin Kelleher (Mitsubishi) but Owen Murphy bowed out when he slid his Mitsubishi off the road on the penultimate stage.

The National Rally was won by Phil Collins (Escort), he was two and a half minutes ahead of Terence O’Shaughnessy (Corolla) with Tom Holton (Toyota Celica) third. Johnny Greer was the top finisher in the Fiesta Challenge; second place for Alistair Fisher was enough to win the series.

Damien McCarthy (Honda Civic) fashioned a fine victory in the Junior category — 55.6 seconds clear of the Escort of Barry Ryan. The Historic category was won by Todd Falvey (Porsche 911), he was a minute 38.9 seconds ahead of Dan Barry (Escort).

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