Loeb and Citroen win with Pirelli in Spain

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Five-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb has taken his fifth consecutive win on the Rally Catalunya, which puts him just one point behind Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen in the drivers’ championship heading into the final round of the season: Rally Great Britain.

A fourth consecutive one-two finish for Citroen in Spain has also guaranteed the French company its fifth manufacturers’ title, and the second gained on Pirelli tyres.

Two compounds of Pirelli PZero asphalt tyre were available to teams in Catalunya: the hard compound and the soft compound. With ground temperatures peaking at 33 degrees Centigrade, all the factory crews used the hard compound rubber for the entirety of the rally, despite some overnight rain on Thursday.

Rally Catalunya is the closest that the World Rally Championship comes to circuit racing all year, with smooth asphalt and sweeping bends. In order to take the quickest line possible through corners, the drivers cut them: dragging plenty of sharp stones and loose gravel onto the racing line. Despite this hazard, none of the drivers suffered any problems with punctures. With the Catalunya route entirely unchanged from last year, the Spanish stages were familiar territory for Pirelli, which has an exclusive three-year deal to supply the World Rally Championship with tyres up to the end of 2010.

Citroen driver Dani Sordo claimed an early lead on his home event, but was definitively overhauled by his team-mate Loeb at the end of the second day. The leading duo were frequently separated by just tenths of a second, with Hirvonen claiming third. Although the Finn admitted that he had no answer to the pace of the Citroens, the Pirelli-equipped Ford team was pleased to note that the gap to their French rivals had reduced compared to last year.

After claiming his 53rd career victory, Loeb said: “I’m delighted that Citroen has taken its fifth manufacturers’ championship and its second with Pirelli: this is the result of great team work not only over this weekend but over the course of the year. Our win here has also improved our situation in the drivers’ championship: it will be winner takes all on the Rally Great Britain in three weeks’ time, so we can all look forward to a great battle.”

With Great Britain being one of Pirelli’s most successful events, both title rivals can anticipate a thrilling fight to the finish on the muddy stages of Wales.

Rally Catalunya was also the penultimate round of the Pirelli Star Driver scheme, a programme run by the Italian manufacturer in collaboration with world motor sport’s governing body, the FIA. The scheme aims to give five young drivers from different FIA regions the chance to drive on six rounds of the World Rally Championship in identical Group N cars.

Finnish driver Jarkko Nikara was quickest of the Pirelli Star drivers in Spain, finishing fourth in class. Norway’s Eyvind Brynildsen won the N4 class on Pirelli tyres, while Dutch driver Han Weijs claimed the Junior World Rally Championship category, also on Pirelli rubber.

Pirelli’s Rally Manager Mario Isola concluded: “We have been very pleased with the way that the event has gone for Pirelli. The PZero has worked really well. The warm weather conditions made the hard compound the right choice for the whole rally. But, what was good news for us was that when we did have some damp conditions – after the overnight rain on Thursday night and Friday morning – the hard tyre still performed really well. The PZero clearly works well in a very wide window. This victory for Sebastien Loeb makes for a very exciting final event in Wales – and, of course, we have to say congratulations to the whole Citroen team on winning the manufacturers’ championship.”