November 14, 2004 Citroën's Sebastien Loeb started the 2004 season by winning the Monte Carlo Rally and he has finished it the same way, winning the Telstra Rally Australia at the weekend (11-14 November 2004). The victory takes his season total to six wins, matching the world record set by fellow Frenchman Didier Auriol exactly ten years ago and provides a perfect end to the season that saw Loeb win the World Championship Drivers' title and Citroën take its second successive manufacturers title with the Citroën Xsara WRC.
Not for the first time the Telstra Rally Australia was an event of attrition, with the leading challengers to Loeb's six win falling by the wayside as the Australian conditions took their toll.
First to go was Markko Martin, whose Ford Focus suffered engine problems on stage one. Next to go was Petter Solberg, who rolled on stage four. Marcus Gronholm then looked set for another Australian win, but he succumbed to the Australian conditions on the first stage of Day Two, when his Peugeot 307 CC hit a tree. The question then was, with a comfortable buffer, would Loeb back off and cruise home?
"It's not easy to slow down," said Loeb on the final day. "The braking points change and it ruins the flow, making it easier to make a mistake because I lose my concentration. I am going at the speed at which I feel happiest, as if I am competing for the event and that means fast."
As if to prove the point, Loeb set the fastest time on four of the final six stages to take the win.
The one person missing from the celebrations at the finish was Loeb's team mate Carlos Sainz, who pulled out of what would have been his final ever rally after an accident during practice. Sainz, the most successful rally driver of all time, was due to arrive back in Spain as Rally Australia ended.
"Carlos said that he wanted to be greeted in Madrid with the news that we had won," said Loeb at the finish. "Once again, Citroen gave us a perfect car which meant we were able to make that happen - thanks to everyone!"
This was Loeb's third Telstra Rally Australia; he finished sixth in 2002, second last year after a hard battle to finish with Solberg. So has the driver once seen only as a tarmac expert become the true all-round driver in Australia?
"I prefer gravel events which allow you to choose your own lines," explains Loeb. "But in Australia with the infamous surface made up of marbles, you cannot drive like that so it's interesting to have to drive tidily as you do here. In places, the precision required is similar to that needed on asphalt!"
Team Director, Guy Fréquelin puts in perspective the conditions faced by Loeb.
"Where the gravel had been cleared aside, the surface was as hard as concrete," commented Fréquelin. "However, the end of the braking zone where I was standing was sandy. That's not easy for a driver arriving at the braking point at something like 200 kph!"
The finale of Rally Australia in the celebrated Sotico Complex south of Perth where the two loops of two stages were split by a Remote Tyre Fitting Zone (RTFZ). For 'Bannister North Short' and 'Bannister Central 1', Loeb chose the Michelin Z, a slightly wider tyre than the Michelin ZE option taken by their rivals. However, there was apparently more surface gravel to be cleared than expected which tipped the balance in favour of those who had gone for the narrower choice. For the event's last two stages ('Bannister North Long', the longest of the weekend at 35.64 km, and 'Bannister Central 2'), the Xsara went out on the same tyres as its rivals and bagged two more fastest times, taking its score to 13 from a possible 25.
Overall classification Telstra Rally Australia 2004
1. S. Loeb/D. Elena (Citroën Xsara) 3 h 39 min 46,8 s 2. H. Rovanperä/R. Pietilainen (Peugeot 307) + 1 min 55,1 s 3. F. Duval/S.Prevot (Ford Focus) + 3 min 40,2 s 4. M. Hirvonen/J. Lehtinen (Subaru Impreza) + 6 min 00,4 s 5. Ch. Atkinson/B. Atkinson (Subaru Impreza) + 16 min 55,6 s 6. X. Pons/O. Julià (Mitsubishi Lancer) + 17 min 36,1 s 7. C. Crocker/G. Foletta (Subaru Impreza) + 17 min 43,3 s 8. T. Arai/T. Sircombe (Subaru Impreza) + 19 min 23,3 s
FIA World Manufacturers' Rally Championship
1. Citroën, 194 points (World Champion 2004) 2. Ford, 143 pts 3. Subaru, 122 pts 4. Peugeot, 101 pts.
FIA World Drivers' Rally Championship
1. S. Loeb, 118 points (World Champion 2004) 2. P. Solberg, 82 pts 3. M. Märtin, 79 pts 4. C. Sainz, 73 pts 5. M. Grönholm, 62 pts 6. F.Duval, 53 pts 7. M. Hirvonen, 29 pts 8. H. Rovanperä, 28 pts 9. J.Tuohino, 16 pts 10. F. Loix, 9 pts