New Zealand - leg 2: Advantage Loeb - just
1 September 2007
Triple World champion, Sebastien Loeb got the better of Marcus Gronholm on the Rally New Zealand in the final stage on day 2, when he overhauled the Finn for the lead.
The Citroen man began the second leg 13 seconds adrift, but immediately set the marker in the first test of the day, the 17.22 kilometre-run through Port Waikato. The Frenchman completed the stage 3.1 seconds up on Gronholm, who was 'best of the rest' in his Ford.
Marcus responded in the next test though and thanks to a combination of his third stage win of the event - and the fact Loeb was only fifth fastest through Possum, the Finn took the margin back up into double figures, from 9.9 seconds to 14.9 seconds.
The Franklin test, SS8, at 31.58 kilometres though was always going to be the more significant and in it Seb set a blistering time - 11.3 seconds up on Gronholm, who complained that his car was sliding all over the place after opting for the wrong tyres.
Going into the short Mystery Creek super special, ahead of the mid-day service, Gronholm's lead was down to just 3.6 seconds and although he managed to gain a few more tenths there, with another stage win, the gap was just 4 seconds heading into the 30 minute halt.
Following the break for lunch Loeb put in a charge in the afternoon, winning both SS10 and SS11. Furthermore while he was only 0.3 seconds up on Gronholm in Te Akau South, he was 5.4 seconds faster in Te Akau North, something that was enough to push him up into P1, 1.7 seconds ahead.
Both drivers' will now have to really battle on Sunday if they want to come out top and claim the maximum ten points – something that should ensure the final day is a lot more exciting than is sometimes the case.
BP Ford number two driver, Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile remains on course for the final place on the podium, although he is in a very lonely third.
Mikko set top five times in every single stage in a bid to try and stay in touch with the two top, should either have a problem. Despite that though, he is now more than a minute off Loeb and Gronholm, although with his nearest rival 50 seconds further back, providing he doesn't do anything silly on Sunday he is virtually assured of a place on the rostrum.
Further down the order, Jari-Matti Latvala is engaged in fierce battle for fourth with Subaru's Chris Atkinson. Latvala moved up to P4 in the first test of the day in his Stobart Ford Focus RS WRC and then pulled out a 10 second cushion in the final two stages.
Dani Sordo completes the top six and while he had been on the fringes of the battle for fourth on Friday, he lost ground this morning and dropped 19.8 seconds back in the #2 Citroen C4 WRC. He eventually finished the day 35 seconds off Atkinson.
Petter Solberg is next up in seventh and still far from happy with his Subaru Impreza WRC, despite the best efforts of 'his' team to try and 'fix' things. In the end though 'Hollywood' reckoned that if anything the car was actually worst today than it was on Friday.
Suzuki's Junior Rally Championship star, Urmo Aava rounds out the provisional points' scorers in his privately entered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05. The Estonian took eighth in the third test on Saturday, when Stobart Ford man Henning Solberg lost time after hitting a bank.
The Norwegian had to stop twice in Franklin to try and clear mud from the radiator of his Focus and as a result lost over 5 minutes, tumbling down to tenth, behind Aava - and Matthew Wilson, who is ninth in the 'third' Stobart Ford entry, which is not nominated to score manufacturers' points.
Of the rest, Munchi's Ford's duo Federico Villagra and Luis Perez Companc are eleventh and thirteenth respectively, sandwiching Britain's Alister McRae who is currently on course to take the Group N honours.
In the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category, Niall McShea is now top – and in 14th place overall. McShea took the lead in the second test today, when Armindo Araujo lost time with a broken differential.
Gabriel Pozzo is McShea's nearest threat in the PWRC, a minute back, while current championship leader, Toshi Arai has hauled himself up from tenth overnight to third, only 1.2 secs off taking the runners-up spot.
Fumio Nutahara and NZ Rally champion, Richard Mason complete the top five in the Production class, the latter was second until his car got stuck in gear in Te Akau North.
Day 1 'works' retirees Manfred Stohl and Xavier Pons both re-started this morning under the SupeRally.
Pons did not last long however and rolled out in SS8, while pushing to try and make up some of the lost time. He will not be able to rejoin the fold again on Sunday as his Subaru Impreza was too badly damaged in the off.
Stohl in contrast made good progress moving up the leader-board from 34th position last night to 16th going into service E, sandwiched between all the PWRC runners.
The action now continues Sunday, which is the shortest leg of the rally - but which also includes some of the most spectacular stages of the event.
Based around the west coast town of Raglan, the itinerary comprises two identical loops of three stages, including the famous Whaanga Coast which hugs the Tasman Sea coastline.
The event ends with a third and final pass over the short Mystery Creek super special stage. After leaving Hamilton at 07.40 hours, drivers tackle 95.94km of competition before the finish at 15.15 hours [all times local].