GREECE -The M-Sport Ford World Rally Team takes home vivid memories of a whirlwind weekend where rally legend Sébastien Loeb and young talent Pierre-Louis Loubet battled for the event lead through the opening day of Acropolis Rally Greece, the tenth round of the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship.
Joined again by nine-time world champion Loeb, the team embarked upon one of the WRC’s toughest challenges feeling optimistic. Thursday evening’s opening super special spectacular inside the Athens Olympic Stadium launched the rally in style, with 60,000 spectators lining the stands for an evening of action. Fans went wild for the side-by-side stadium test, and Loeb’s appearance called for a standing ovation after the epic opener.
The spectacles would only continue into Friday morning when Loeb opened the day with a fastest time on the Loutraki stage to take the rally lead. Loeb collected stage wins in the following two stages and a final push in the last test of the day saw him sat in the top spot by the end of Friday’s action with four stage wins to his name.
In one of the most memorable podium assaults of the season, and the best performance of his career so far, it was Pierre-Louis Loubet who was challenging Loeb for the rally lead. Claiming his maiden WRC stage win and first-ever rally lead in one swift blow, the young Frenchman launched himself into first overall after Stage 5, now with a 1.9 second advantage over his childhood hero, Loeb. For good measure, he would follow up with another fastest time in the following speed test and double the gap to second.
The fantastic Frenchmen made it a clean sweep for the Ford Puma Hybrid Rally1, winning all of Friday’s stages on a day reminiscent of January’s Monte Carlo victory.
Craig Breen’s day was hampered by dust in the early stages due to his road position and after being forced to stop and change a puncture in SS4, he found himself behind his rivals with work to do to regain positions over the weekend.
Saturday brought the longest and most gruelling test of the rally; sitting at a brutal 33.2km in blistering Greek heat, the Pyrgos stage was going to be a challenge for all crews.
But if Loeb loves anything, it’s a challenge. Clocking in less than two seconds behind the stage winner, Loeb retained the top-spot and even extended his lead to a huge 19 seconds.
It was after this that the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s fortunes would change as Loeb and co-driver, Isabelle Galmiche, encountered a problem with the alternator on the following road section, stopping to attempt repairs. The pair made a gargantuan effort to get the car back up and running, finding a solution, but time was against them which meant for a tragic, untimely end for car 19. No sooner had the news of Loeb’s troubles broken when tragedy also struck for Loubet. A puncture in SS9 lost him over a minute, but he would not be disheartened and fought his way back to fifth position by the end of the day.
Putting behind him the frustrations of Friday, Breen was back on the pace on Saturday, setting top-five times in the afternoon to claw his way from 11th to 6th overall by evening service.
Greensmith started out on the same footing as Breen, putting down competitive times and gaining himself two positions by lunchtime. An engine issue in SS11 sadly cut his day short, but a strong effort from the team had the car back up and running for Sunday’s attack on the power stage.
Starting fresh on Sunday, the mission was clear; to get the cars to the end and collect power stage points.
Cut up by the morning’s first pass, the stage brought with it some incredibly tough conditions, but it would pay off when Breen and Greensmith crossed the finish line with third and fourth-fastest times respectively.
Despite their setbacks, Loubet and Breen had impressively worked their way back to fourth and fifth overall respectively, and all crews had reminded the world of the pure pace of the cars, and what the team is truly capable of.
A weekend of ups and downs on an Acropolis Rally as tough as ever, the team returns to Dovenby Hall still feeling the buzz of Friday’s dominance and the promise of more great results with the Ford Puma Hybrid Rally1.
Rich Millener, Team Principal, said:
“What can I say, firstly the team never gave up coming into this rally and Friday proved why. We showed we are here to fight the others and we are more than capable of fighting for success. Loeb is simply fantastic and Pierre was the star of the rally. Craig and Gus were strong throughout and Jourdan was as committed to the challenge of WRC as always.
“OK, we didn’t get the results we wanted but it was a tough weekend for all competitors. Congratulations to Hyundai on a dominant rally, they really deserved that, but we will be back to fight again in New Zealand and we are determined in knowing we can achieve success.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet, Fourth Overall, said:
“What a weekend! I am still processing everything that happened on Friday, and I will be re-living it for some time I think.
“Even though it is a shame about the puncture on Saturday, to get my first WRC stage win and even lead the rally against Seb is something I will never forget. I would watch Seb in action when I was a little boy, and to compete on the same team as him was a privilege. I want to say a big thank you to all the team for their hard work and support this weekend. I can’t wait to get going in Spain next month.”
Craig Breen, Fifth Overall, said:
“It was a difficult start on Friday, but I gained some confidence back on Saturday and we saw some pretty good pace and finished in a good position, so I’m happy. It was nice to have the power stage points as well, it’s great to end on a high!”
“This rally was obviously pretty new to me, so it was great to go out there and see what it’s like. I’m already looking forward to next year!”
Gus Greensmith, 29th Overall, said:
“It was very tough out there this weekend, the conditions are really brutal and it’s a big challenge. I was glad to see some good times on Saturday morning, I felt in a pretty good rhythm and I was really enjoying it.
“It’s a shame it ended the way it did, with our issues on Saturday, but a big thank you goes to the team for making repairs so we could get back out on Sunday. It was worth it for collecting those points in the power stage. Time to start thinking about New Zealand and the next challenge.”
Sebastien Loeb, Retired Saturday, said:
“Friday was a really strong day, it was great to be back in the car and clearly we had the pace to get to the end in a good position. I haven’t done this rally in a long time, so it is nice to come back and see that I can still be fast! The conditions were very rough in places, but I enjoyed the challenge.
“It is a shame we couldn’t go any further, it was great to be in contest with Pierre-Louis, he has done a fantastic job and should be proud. I hope to be back in the car for another event at some point in the future.”