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Loeb in front in Wales - but for how much longer?

17 September 2004


Citroen's Sebastien Loeb remains in front on the Wales Rally GB tonight [Friday], despite pressure from Petter Solberg late this morning, and in the afternoon, which saw the Frenchman's advantage more than halved.

Following the Super Special Thursday, which kicked off the event, and was won by Francois Duval, the action started 'proper' this morning, and Loeb, took advantage of his position on the road, to pull out a 19.5 second lead at the end of SS3.

The Frenchman, who benefited as the roads weren't churned up, saw that advantage tumble this afternoon though, to end the leg 8.4 seconds up on Petter Solberg.

"We had a clean run and our tyre choice was good. For once in the season, starting first on the road hasn't penalised me. On this kind of terrain, it's difficult to find the right rhythm – it needs to be fast but controlled. My plan was to drive as I felt on the first day, and look at the results. Leading tonight after such a day gives me the choice of tactics, and I like that," he said.

Solberg, who was third after SS3, made some slight adjustments to the front dampers before SS4, and after that he stormed back, second on Brechfa 2 to Marcus Gronholm, before setting a trio of fastest times through SS5, SS6 and SS7, to end the day just 8.4 seconds shy of the leader, and poised to strike tomorrow.

"I'm really enjoying myself out on the stages now," said the Norwegian. "I had a bit of a difficult start today with a damper adjustment problem, but once that was sorted the rally just got better and better. I love the stages here in Wales, and I've really enjoyed driving on them today, it's an incredible feeling when you get them just right. Now there's a good battle and this sort of competition is good for the motivation I can tell you."

Gronholm meanwhile remains in with a shout in third, just 15.9 seconds off the lead, however the Finn will need to up his pace tomorrow if he is stay in contention for the win.

"Everything's gone very well so far," commented the Peugeot driver. "It was so slippery in the morning, but we made the perfect tyre choice and tried not to take any risks. As the stages dried out we could go faster, but I was not so happy with the handling at the rear of the car during the first run through the long stage in the afternoon. We made some small changes at service, and it felt a lot better on the second run through Rheola. The most important thing is that the car has been reliable and we are close to the front."

Markko Martin is next up, a further 20 or so seconds down the road, in the lead Ford Focus, the Estonian happy to have finished the day after a moment in SS5, which almost put him out, when he exited a crest into a ditch, veered across the road into another and then ricocheted back to the first.

Carlos Sainz is fifth, the Spaniard having had a rather quiet day, and already too far behind to challenge the top four, but too far ahead to be worried by those in his rear mirrors. He was unhappy with his car's handling all day.

Mikko Hirvonen, Francois Duval and Harri Rovanpera round out the provisional points scorers, each one having encountered difficulties in the final test, Hirvonen spinning while the other two had technical difficulties. All three lost time as a result.

Mark Higgins heads the Brits, and is also the best of the privateers, just outside the points in his Ford Focus, while Henning Solberg completes the top ten.

In the Junior WRC Mirco Baldacci leads a Suzuki 1-2-3-4, 50.3 seconds up on his team-mate, Per-Gunnar Andersson, while Guy Wilks is third, and set for a podium finish at this early stage on his home event.

In total 86 competitors started the event on Thursday, 29 going out over the first seven stages, including works drivers Daniel Carlsson and Armin Schwarz, who both went off the road.

The majority of the second leg tomorrow [Saturday] is based north of Swansea around the Epynt military land. Drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages there, covering more than 91km in total. The only opportunity for service is a 10-minute tyre and fuel zone during which only two mechanics and the drivers can work on the rally cars. Competitors head back south for a test at Margam before a repeat of the super special stage in Cardiff which opened the rally last night. After leaving Swansea at 07.15, drivers face 120.72km of competition before returning to the city for the final overnight halt at 19.59.


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