Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has seen his lead on the Rallye Monte Carlo increase almost two-fold following the opening loop on Saturday.

Loeb was second quickest in the first test of the day - 2 seconds off his team-mate, Daniel Sordo, before he topped the leader-board in SS10 and SS11, 1.2 seconds up on Sordo in St Bonnet 1 and 8.9 seconds up on Francois Duval in Lamastre 1.

With Sordo having to pull out in SS11 though due to engine problems, Seb saw his margin over second place go from around almost a minute to nearly two. He subsequently returned to the service area at Valence with a 1 minute 53.5 second lead.

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"SS9 was a tricky stage and I did not take any risks," Seb reflected. "It was very foggy at the start of the next test. The ice crew reported more ice patches than I actually encountered. I kept going flat out though in order to increase my lead. I feel great in the car, and I get a lot of pleasure."

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile has now inherited the runners-up spot following Sordo's misfortune. The Finn had been hoping to cut the deficit to Dani this morning but actually lost out in SS9 and SS10.

"Dani has retired so that has helped me and I really want to keep this position now," said Hirvonen. "Two points more for second would be good but there is still a long distance to go.

"I tried hard on the opening stage but I couldn't match Dani's pace so I eased off slightly and kept the pressure on him. I stalled the engine at the start of the last test but that only cost a few seconds."

Chris Atkinson completes the podium, albeit a minute further back. The Aussie is however still locked in a battle with Francois Duval and now it is P3 they are squabbling over not P4. Initially Atkinson took first blood and was quicker than the Stobart Ford 'guest' driver in Labatie 1, but he then lost out in SS10 and SS11. They are currently separated by 10.1 seconds.

"For sure it's good to be in third, but today showed how unpredictable this event can be," stated Atkinson. "We've had good pace this morning, although I could have pushed a little harder in places, but there's still a long way to go and a lot of stages left.

"Duval will be fast this afternoon so we must keep pushing to stay ahead. It won't be easy but we've been in front of him all rally so far. We'll make some changes to the car during service as I was lacking some grip in the last stage, and we'll try to increase the gap again this afternoon."

"We had some good times this morning especially on the last stage so things are getting better," Duval added. "The feeling can still get better with the car and we will make some small changes in service to try and help this. There is still more to come. I'm happy with my progress."

Further down the order Petter Solberg is fifth, 38.4 seconds off the battle for third, while Gigi Galli, Jean-Marie Cuoq and P-G Andersson round out the provisional points' scorers.

P-G had a good morning in his SX4 WRC and set some very quick times, including a fifth fastest effort in SS9. Toni Gardemeister also set three times in the top ten in the sister Suzuki, but complained of transmission problems after Lamastre. He ended the loop in 12th.

"Something's broken again! It looks like the transmission this time," said Toni post-SS11. "It is a pity because everything was fine."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Jari-Matti Latvala and Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg came in ninth and tenth, with Matthew Wilson just one spot lower, also in a Focus.

Jari had a difficult morning after he suffered a hydraulic problem on the opening test and then had to drive the rest of the loop using the manual gearchange system and without the normal differential performance. That cost him around 50 seconds.

"I only had front-wheel drive and it was difficult to drive," he explained. "The car was sideways a lot and the brakes were locking and at times it was very difficult to control. It was hard work but we will fix the problem in service and then the game will be back on again."

Of the other runners, Ales Broccoli continues to head the A7 class in his Renault Clio, while Patrick Artru is now on course for the Group N honours, less than ten seconds up on Olivier Burri.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT 'third' driver Khalid Al Qassimi re-started under the SupeRally format today after his off on Friday in SS6. He is currently running 24th, despite spinning on the last stage and losing around 20 seconds.

The action now resumes at 12.52 hours local time, when the morning's tests will be repeated to conclude the third day's action.