Sebastien Loeb has finished the opening leg of Rally de Espana in the lead, 30.6 seconds up on his closest rival.

Loeb started the afternoon loop with a 5.3 second cushion, however, after hanging dust gave him an edge this morning and negated the disadvantage of running first on the road, he lost time in SS4 and SS5.

Indeed the Citroen man was only fourth in SS4 and reported that it was 'cleaning a lot'. That allowed Jari-Matti Latvala to seize the advantage and the Finn turned a 5.3 second deficit into an 8 second lead. Loeb then lost more ground in SS5, despite being second quickest, with Jari-Matti doubling his advantage to 16 seconds following his second stage win on the trot.

The final test of the day though, which was run in the dark, saw the pendulum swing back in Loeb's favour and when his Ford rival spun and then suffered a front puncture losing more than 40 seconds in total, the Frenchman was promoted back into top spot.

"We're in an ideal position now," said Loeb. "Our aim was not to lose too much time in relation to our rivals. Finishing the day twenty seconds behind Latvala would have suited me. And in the end, we've got a lead of thirty seconds, so it's perfect! I had to push very hard all day. Tomorrow, being first out on the road will no longer be a handicap and we can choose the rhythm that we want to impose on the rally."

Latvala, who now drops down to second, was bitterly disappointed: "It was cold and still this morning and the dust hung in the air," he recounted. "I tried to balance bravery with caution but I had a few close escapes. Conditions were bad again tonight [in SS6] and it was like driving into a wall of dust in places. I wanted to build a lead ahead of the asphalt stages over the next two days but I made a mistake.

"I was unsure where I was because the visibility was so bad, and I was driving too hard for those conditions. I entered a right corner too fast and spun. I didn't lose much time with the spin but I had to wait for a long time while the dust cleared so I could work out where the road was. A little further into the stage I hit some rocks and punctured a tyre, but it didn't cost much time," he added.

Sebastien Ogier meanwhile saw his challenge dented in SS5, when he had to stop and change a puncture. That cost him 2 minutes and dropped him from third, 2.5 seconds behind his team-mate, to fifth, although he regained a place in SS6, to move back ahead of Dani Sordo.

Mikko Hirvonen is now third, although he hasn't had the strongest of days and lies 54.2 seconds off the lead - and 23.6 seconds off his Ford Abu Dhabi WRT team-mate, although that is not likely to be an issue, given Latvala would be forced to concede the place if the standings remain like this at the close of day three.

"Driving in the dark and with dust on the gravel roads was incredibly difficult," said Hirvonen, who is of course currently joint top with Loeb in the drivers' championship. "The first driver into the stage had a big advantage, but there's nothing I could do about that. My position is OK and tomorrow I want to find a good rhythm and keep pushing hard. Dry conditions won't be an issue, but if it's wet then choosing the right tyres and ensuring maximum grip will be key."

Further back, after Sordo in P5, Kris Meeke comes in sixth in the sister MINI WRT John Cooper Works WRC car.

"I had a challenging day," Meeke noted. "However, if I had really pushed myself to the limit risking everything maybe I would have been on a similar time to Dani, but then I know he is going to pull away tomorrow as I don't have the experience of the roads.

"I said for once use the wise head and try to relax and go out to learn the rally. Certainly the most challenging part of the rally is over and the last stage was the most difficult stage I have ever driven.

"Tomorrow is all about tarmac driving, finding the rhythm there and trying to find tenths of seconds as the stage times will be separated by a lot less. Today with the dust and the rocks falling onto the road it made it very, very difficult."

M-Sport Stobart Ford's Mads Ostberg and Henning Solberg hold positions 7 and 8, the former slowed by differential problems, while the latter has been hindered by intercom problems.

"It has felt like a very long day but that last stage was unbelievable!" Ostberg said. "We could barely see a thing so I tried to be sensible and keep the speed down but the car took so many knocks. We had to make do with the Tarmac differential which made everything a lot harder than it could have been as the handling was all over the place.

"We changed the dampers and springs at service which helped for the second loop but then we still struggled with the pre-load on the rear diff. This afternoon was definitely a step forward compared to what everything felt like this morning and I'm happy to be in this position after a hard day. I didn't think I would say this but I'm actually happy to have got today's stages out the way and I look forward to moving onto full asphalt roads tomorrow."

Evgeny Novikov and Matt Wilson round out the top ten, with SWRC class leader, Nasser Al-Attiyah eleventh, just one second up on Juho Hanninen.

Patrik Flodin leads the PWRC - the other support category - 35.9 seconds ahead of Michal Kosciuszko.

In terms of retirements, SS1 claimed both Petter Solberg and Ken Block - Solberg ripped a wheel off, while Block damaged his steering. F1 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen joined them on the sidelines in SS3, stopping with reported engine problems.

The action now continues on Saturday with 143.54 competitive kilometres on the bill, comprising two loops of three stages. Unlike today's mainly gravel tests though, the final two days are completely on tarmac and as such overnight the cars will be converted into full asphalt trim.

SS7, the 45.97 km-run through El Priorat 1 - the longest test of the event - begins at 09.40 hours local time [08.40 hours UK time].

Rally de Espana: Overall standings after Stage 6 (Top 10):

1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 1hour 44mins 06.3secs M
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 30.6secs M
3. Mikko Hirvonen Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 54.2secs M
4. Sebastien Ogier Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +01mins 45.3secs M
5. Dani Sordo MINI WRT John Cooper Works +02mins 02.7secs
6. Kris Meeke MINI WRT John Cooper Works +02mins 52.8secs
7. Mads Ostberg M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 03.1secs M
8. Henning Solberg M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 11.6secs
9. Evgeny Novikov Citroen DS3 WRC +04mins 24.8secs M
10. Matthew Wilson M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05mins 16.8secs M


11. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta S2000 +05mins 50.0secs S
12. Juho Hanninen Skoda Fabia S2000 +05mins 51.0secs S
13. Dennis Kuipers FERM Powertools Ford Fiesta RS WRC +05mins 51.7secs M
14. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta S2000 +06mins 14.6secs S
15. Martin Prokop Ford Fiesta S2000 +06mins 18.1secs S
16. Khalid Al-Qassimi Team Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC +06mins 50.6secs M
19. Peter van Merksteijn Van Merksteijn Citroen DS3 WRC +07mins 52.4secs M
21. Patrik Flodin Subaru Impreza +08mins 56.9secs P
23. Federico Villagra Munchi's Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +09mins 35.9secs M

SWRC standings after Stage 6 (Top 3):

1. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta S2000 1hour 49mins 56.3secs S
2. Juho Hanninen Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 01.0secs S
3. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta S2000 +00mins 24.6secs S

PWRC standings after Stage 6 (Top 3):

1. Patrik Flodin Subaru Impreza 1hour 53mins 03.2secs P
2. Michal Kosciuszko Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +00mins 35.9secs P
3. Benito Guerra Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +04mins 14.6secs P

Notable retirements:

SS1. Petter Solberg PSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC Broken wheel M
SS1. Ken Block Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Broken steering M
SS3. Kimi Raikkonen ICE1 Racing Citroen DS3 WRC Engine M

all times unofficial


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