Emotional Lambros shows his P-WRC potential with victory in Greece
A brilliant drive saw an emotional Lambros Athanassoulas (GR, Skoda) win another exciting battle in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship on the Acropolis Rally of Greece. Co-driven by Nikolaos Zakheos, the 32-year old driver from Loutraki had only driven his Skoda Fabia S2000 for the first time a few days before the start of the event, but set out to impress existing and potential sponsors with an eye on a full P-WRC campaign in 2010 – and beat the world’s best in the process. Athanassoulas wonderful performance was recognised when he received the Abu Dhabi Spirit of the Rally Award.

The fight for the P-WRC title will go down to the wire, as three drivers remain in contention. Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT, Subaru) finished 2nd in Greece and is just four points ahead of Armindo Araújo (P, Mitsubishi). Both drivers will next contest Wales Rally GB, although Eyvind Brynildsen (N, Mitsubishi), who did not enter the Acropolis Rally, still has a chance of winning the title, as he has dominated both the remaining rounds (Australia and GB) and can potentially gain 20 points.

Athanassoulas raised P-WRC eyebrows when he set the second fastest time on SS1 – even though he thought he’d picked up a puncture – and then took the lead on SS2. He maintained his advantage during the opening day, even though his Skoda was oversteering and set-up changes were to improve the car for the following morning. Despite a small off two corners from the end of SS9, he had established a 49.9 second lead before a misfire on SS11 allowed Al-Attiyah to close and then take the P-WRC led on SS12. With his car fixed, Athanassoulas continued to thrill his local fans by retaking the lead on Day 3 and go into the final stage just 9.6 seconds ahead. Not only did he hold his nerve, he increased his winning margin to 22.3 seconds as a tearful winner celebrated a remarkable achievement.

As Athanassoulas was a guest P-WRC driver, Al-Attiyah’s main priority was to outscoring his title rivals – and although he’d have rather collected 10 points for a win, he wasn’t going to throw away eight points by risking 2nd place on the final stage. It was far from a trouble-free run, as Al-Attiyah had to use all his experience to ensure his Barwa Rally Team Impreza reached the finish. Overheating problems on Day 1 cost some time, but it was a bent steering rack on Day 2 which was ultimately the difference between 1st and 2nd. Having hit a large rock just over half way through SS8, he struggled to keep the car in a straight line for the remaining 10kms. Well rehearsed running repairs allowed Al-Attiyah to continue and at the end of the day less than 10 seconds separated the top three going into the final day of competition. Al-Attiyah led going into the final day, but when Athanassoulas took 11.9 seconds off him on SS14, the five times FIA Middle East Rally Champion decided 2nd, on this occasion, was good enough.

A confident Armindo Araújo (P, Mitsubishi) pushed very hard in Greece, driving flat-out and taking risks as he considered this a “now or never” situation in his title bid, as he arrived in Greece two points behind Al-Attiyah. The 31-year old from Santo Tirso set the fastest time on the opening stage, but lost the lead after adjusting the dampers and making the set-up slightly too soft. Easing off on the roughest sections was essential to keep his Lancer intact, although the flying Araújo found anything less than maximum attack very frustrating. Despite losing time driving half of SS12 with a broken rear right wheel, he ended Day 2 in 3rd – and very much in contention for victory, as the top three were separated by just 9.9 seconds. The team decided to charge a lot of things in preparation for the final day, but they were to live to regret this as the car’s set-up was too soft. From setting a P-WRC winning pace, the car now struggled to cope with the rough terrain and with it bottoming out, Araújo had to ease off to ensure a 3rd place finish and the six points which keep his title hopes very much alive.

Patrik Sandell (S, Skoda) had made a very detailed recce and knew exactly were to push and where to ease off. His tactics worked perfectly on Day 1 when he got the very best out of his Fabia S2000 on the fastest and smoothest sections to lead all the Subarus and Mitsubishis. He ended the day in 2nd place, 8.2 seconds behind Athanassoulas to give Skoda a one-two at the top of the P-WRC leaderboard. Sandell’s title hopes took a huge blow on the road section the following morning, when his engine began to misfire. On the opening stage it fell onto three cylinders, then two, before cutting out completely. Despite everything looking normal under the bonnet, it took 26 minutes before a sensor was disconnected and the engine restarted. Another four and a half minutes were lost as Sandell nursed the car back to service. Having been the runaway leader of P-WRC with victories on the opening two rounds of the series, Sandell’s title hopes now rested with Al-Attiyah and Araújo hitting major problems on the final day in Greece; not that he really wished bad luck on either of them. But he knew such experienced drivers weren’t going to throw away a world title chance so easily and whilst Sandell pushed hard on the final day, he eventually finished outside the points in 12th – and with Al-Attiyah picking up eight points for finishing 2nd, Sandell is 11 points behind with one nominated event (Wales Rally GB) and 10 points available.

Having won P-WRC in Greece two years ago, Toshi Arai (J, Subaru) used his considerable Acropolis Rally experience to pace himself well on Day 1, monitoring a slight rise in engine temperature to finish the day in 5th, just 28 seconds behind the leader. Despite almost rolling on SS7, he remained in contention until a traction control arm broke on the final stage of Day 2. He arrived at the stop control with a loose front right wheel and the hazard warning lights on, having lost over a minute and a half. That dropped Arai out of the battle for victory and from then on he concentrated on maintaining position, finishing 4th.

Martin Prokop (CZ, Mitsubishi) regretted starting the event carrying two spare wheels and an overtly pessimistic emergency repair kit, as he found his Lancer was 150kgs overweight and impossible to drive quickly. First service saw the load lightened and he enjoyed a better afternoon – despite a minor misfire. He began Day 2 in 6th, 50 seconds off the leader, but could not push hard to regain lost time, as he feared the rough new stages would soon destroy the car. A differential problem on SS12 saw the car slide sideways under braking, and ambitions of P-WRC victory turned towards a points-scoring finish. Prokop started Day 3 just 6.1 seconds behind Arai, but had to settle for 5th when he was left with only second and fifth gears on the opening loop of the final day.

An overheating engine forced Andis Neiksans (LV, Mitsubishi) to switch off the anti-lag system and turn the car’s heater on full blast, which was far from ideal on a mountainous and hot event which requires maximum power and cooling. After losing so much time on Day 1, Neiksans set his sights on a finish – and consistent driving saw him come home 6th.

With three retirements from three starts this year, Bernardo Sousa (P, Abarth) knew that high scores on the remaining three rounds of the P-WRC were essential if he was to salvage something from what had expected to be a title-challenging campaign. The 22-year old started well and grew in confidence after a good opening day in his Grande Punto S2000. Unfortunately, Sousa hit a rock “the size of a crash helmet” on SS7 with such force that it broke the suspension and sprayed shock absorber oil over the windscreen. He did well to complete the next two stages and get the car to service, but on the final stage in the afternoon the power steering failed near the start. Not only did he have to drive over 20kms without power assistance, but the catch on the co-driver’s door broke and the physical demands of arm-wrestling a car with no power steering was made considerably more difficult with clouds of dust in the car. Sousa remained in 7th, but the 90 second gap between him and the leader had increased to almost seven minutes. Power steering problems continued to plague his progress on the final day and together with cooling system dramas Sousa was relieved to reach the finish, albeit in 7th place.

Having won P-WRC on Wales Rally GB last year, 2009 has not been so kind to Patrik Flodin (S, Subaru) – and the Acropolis Rally turned into another event he’d prefer to forget. The 2006 Swedish Rally Champion lost over a minute during Day 1 when the set-up that worked so well during pre-event testing didn’t work come the event. The team abandoned its Greek set-up in favour of the settings used in Sardinia, which transformed the Impreza on Day 2 and allowed Flodin to set 3rd fastest time on the opening stage of the day (SS7). Unfortunately, the centre differential broke on SS9 and SS11, leaving the 24-year old with only rear-wheel drive for half of the morning and afternoon loop of stages. The time lost dropped him to 8th, the final P-WRC points-scoring position.

Pirelli Star Driver Mark Tapper (NZ, Mitsubishi) kept in the middle of the road and out of trouble to finish his first day on the Acropolis Rally in 9th place. He spun on SS8 and had to wait for the dust to settle before he could see where to go again, and more time was lost in the same stage when his Lancer broke a shock absorber and a damaged exhaust reduced the power. He eventually stopped on SS11 when the steering arm and driveshalft broke – possibly as a result of damage sustained when he went off the road on the previous stage. His first rally in Greece proved invaluable experience, as he completed the event in 9th.

Spyros Pavlides (CY, Subaru) achieved a personal ambition by finishing the Acropolis Rally for the first time in his career. He had to drive through half of Day 2 without power steering, but once that was fixed he never let the finish line out of his sight and came home 10th.

Gianluca Linari (I, Subaru) had a steady run and commented, “our car is rather old and the other drivers are faster, so we are just heading towards the finish.” His aim was to avoid major problems and complete all the stages, which he did by finishing 11th.

Frédéric Sauvan’s (F, Mitsubishi) ripped a wheel off his Lancer on SS11, but that was his only mistake as the reigning French Group N Tarmac Rally Champion looked set for a top 10 finish. However, on the final stage an electrical problem saw him stop for 31 minutes and after receiving time penalties for arriving late into the final service, he eventually finished 13th.

Martin Semerád (CZ, Mitsubishi) had trained in a sauna and attended a Pirelli Star Driver training camp to help prepare himself for the high temperatures expected in Greece, although the 19-year old’s aim of scoring good points was ruined when transmission problems on SS5 forced him out of Day 1. Save for a broken driveshaft in the morning, Day 2 was more satisfying, as he increased his pace to finish the day by setting the fourth best P-WRC time on SS12. He was destined not to complete the event, however, as the steering arm broke on SS14 – and although he repaired it himself, he retired soon after when a differential broke.

Egoi Eder Valdés López’s (E, Subaru) suffered electrical problems on SS2, forcing him to abandon his efforts on Day 1. He restarted the following day, but retired when the rear differential failed on SS8.

Gabor Mayer (H, Subaru) completed Day 1 in 13th position, but rolled his Impreza into a ditch and out of the event on the opening stage of Day 2.

Stefano Marrini (I, Mitsubishi) was en route to SS1 when engine problems forced him out of the event.


1st – Lambros Athanassoulas, Skoda Fabia S2000:
“This means so much to me! It is a dream come true and I really have no words to describe this feeling. I am so happy I can cry. Yesterday we had a minor problem that dropped us to second place, but we fought back this morning to take back the place that was ours. We worked so long and so hard for this, and I believe the key to our win was our performance on the first day of this rally. I need to thank so many people, my team, my sponsors and my brother who is also my team manager. I can’t say thank you enough times!”

2nd – Nasser Al-Attiyah, Subaru Impreza:
“We fought hard and I am really, really happy with second place. It is always good to be on the podium and we now have five good results in a row. Lambros may have won, but I was able to take the important points here with my Subaru ahead of the other guys in the championship. We now have a small lead. We will take this to Rally GB [the last round of the championship] and hope to defend it.”

3rd – Armindo Araújo, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX:
“Yesterday had been a tough day for our car, and last night at service we decided to change many parts to be in the best position to fight today. Unfortunately, the car did not work as we expected and the set-up was too soft. It meant that we could not carry the speed on these roads to attack for the win, and we had to drive carefully in order to protect our points. This third place means very important points to us. We are four points behind for the last event, but this championship is very, very strong and for sure anything can happen.”

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