Mikko Hirvonen has maintained his lead on the Rally New Zealand following the first loop of stages for leg two, but his previously comfortable advantage has been reduced to 6.8secs as he struggles to cope as the first driver out on the road.

With just the short stage at Mystery Creek left to run before the cars return to the service park, Hirvonen has gamely clung onto his advantage after three long stages, but dropped time to Loeb in each of those and is now on course to be overtaken by the end of the day.

Indeed, while Hirvonen kept Loeb honest on SS9, he lost a considerable amount of time through the lengthy 31km Franklin stage as he battles to find the grip beneath the substantial layer of gravel that marks out today's drier stages.

"I managed to hold him off on the damp section near the start, but on the last 15km it was completely dry and when it's like that it's tough," the Finn said.

With another 67km of running remaining today, Loeb will probably overtake Hirvonen before the end of the day, provided tactics are not employed. For the Frenchman though, he thinks he will need a 20 second buffer to resist Hirvonen on the third leg.

"It's good to be second on the road," he said. "It certainly helps - although it's not easy. In some places I took time from Mikko easily, but in others it was impossible. So far it's a perfect outcome for the first loop, but there are still two long stages to go and I reckon I'll need a 20-second lead tonight."

While Hirvonen flounders up at the front, Ford could nonetheless have an ace up their sleeve in the shape of Latvala, who is playing himself back into contention after a strong start to the day. A fastest time on SS10 means he is just 14secs behind Hirvonen and in with a shout of slotting himself between his team-mate and Loeb, a move that could give Hirvonen a prime starting position on the final day of competition - provided Loeb does indeed take the lead.

By contrast, Citroen will be disappointed to see Dani Sordo fall away from the lead battle. Although the Spaniard has been largely on the pace, he lies 25.8secs adrift now.

Elsewhere, there was little movement inside the top ten, with Francois Duval continuing his quiet rally in fifth place, the Belgian pumping in consistent times to go more than a minute up from Urmo Aava.

Aava was one of the drivers to experience problems following an off on SS9, one that lost him 50 seconds. However, while he briefly lost sixth to Petter Solberg, a fourth best time on SS10 saw him snatch it back at the final time of asking.

Solberg, meanwhile, is continuing to vent his frustration at not being able to adapt to the new Subaru Impreza. Complaining of having little grip, seventh place Solberg has at least pulled out a fair margin back to Per-Gunnar Andersson.

After their strong start to the rally yesterday, Suzuki suffered a dose of bitter reality over the first loop as Andersson dropped a chunk of time with grip issues. There was worse news for team-mate Toni Gardemeister, who lost almost two minutes when his brakes failed towards the end of SS10.

That drops him to tenth overall, just behind Federico Villagra, the Argentine moving to within a shout of the points as he continues his steady rally in the Munchi's Ford. There was further joy for the small privateer team when Henning Solberg delivered them a stage victory on SS8, the Norwegian making the most of his advantageous position in the running order to set a scintillating time around Port Waikato. He has moved up to the cusp of the top twenty now.

Elsewhere, Matthew Wilson and Chris Atkinson are back on the road after retiring on leg one. Although both are treating the rest of the event as learning experiences, Wilson has been on great form so far, securing the fifth best time on SS10.

In the Production WRC class, Marco Baldacci retains his lead, but is now just 1.6secs ahead of Martin Prokop after developing some problems. Evgeny Novikov is now third after Fumio Nutahara crashed out of contention.

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