It was 16 years ago, but Sébastien Loeb remembered it like it was yesterday. That’s the nature of the rally. When you face down an Acropolis, you don’t forget it.
OK, the M-Sport Ford superstar didn’t immediately recall the precise details, but he remembered the best bits. Like a wheel and tire exploding. Then another one.
In 2006, the final Saturday afternoon stage took the crews way out west towards Loutraki for Psatha.
Mid-way through, the left-rear BF Goodrich on Loeb’s Citroën Xsara WRC cried enough. In fact, it screamed enough.
“I remember,” smiled Loeb. “We took the puncture, but there was still quite a long way to go in the stage. When we came out there was really a long way back down the motorway to service. Driving without the tire was damaging the other tires – but I already had four other punctures; this was a time when we still had mousse in the tires. I swapped to the spare tire, but then we lost another tire.
“I carried on and the car was getting lower and lower. We came to service and there was no tire, no wheel, wishbone, brake or anything. We had lost everything. But we made it.
“We were quite lucky, the sumpguard was red [hot] from running on the road. But we still made second place, so it wasn’t too bad!”
I followed Loeb east towards Athens and the safety of the Kronos Racing team that day. It was astonishing. Nobody dared get too close for fear of being hit by pieces of brake disc or suspension being worn down then fired off in any direction. The gorge left in one of Greece’s main east-west highways was impressive.
What was most impressive was Loeb’s ice cool approach. Talking to him after the stage, the obvious question of whether or not he would make it. There was a shrug and a wry smile.
“I guess we’ll find out…”
He arrived on his minute, stayed second and used those points to contribute towards a third straight drivers’ title.
But this story’s not about Loeb’s efforts to control a crabbing, limping Citroën. And it’s not about the rule change those actions resulted in – the FIA soon after decided cars had to arrive in service with wheel and tire inflated and rotating freely.
No, what this is about is the event that generated that story.
It’s a classic. Always has been.
The Loeb story ended with a Marcus Grönholm win. What did the Finn think?
“Rough,” he said, remembering. “Very rough. Hey, in this year I remember the roads were worse than Kenya. So many rocks.”
For many, the Acropolis was always a Safari in miniature, but in many ways, it was more of a test for the teams and the cars. Shorter in length than the African classic – and without the same protection built into the cars – a win in Greece was always worth shouting about.
An Acropolis win means as much as it ever did and the Acropolis’ presence on the World Rally Championship calendar is as vital as it ever was
Two things took the some of the sting out of the event: the onset of asphalt roads in Greece and the development of mousse in tires. With mousse inserts ready to fill any hole left by the biggest and sharpest of Greek rocks, the Acropolis became more akin to a Portugal or any other sprint-style rally.
Arguably, the modern-day Acropolis is back to the rally’s roots. Tire technology has come full circle and Pirelli now relies on rock-solid construction to fend off the worst of the terrain and that terrain is as rocky as it’s ever been.
Yes, much of the center of Greece’s road network is covered in Tarmac, but that means the gravel bits that are left and generally untended and rough as anything we’ve seen down the years. Prime for an Acropolis route.
The combination of those roads with the sort of energy-sapping heat – even a September date can produce – ensures an event of proper endurance.
An Acropolis win means as much as it ever did and the Acropolis’ presence on the World Rally Championship calendar is as vital as it ever was.
Once you’ve done it. You don’t forget it.
Just ask Sébastien.